Mage’s Blood by David Hair
Culturally, Mage’s Blood by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2013) The Moontide Quartet 1, takes us into the high fantasy equivalent of Earth distilled down to the hegemonically inclined Europeans and the states on which the predators would wish to impose colonial or vassal status: for these purposes, simplified down to Arab and Indian nations. In the “West”, the early religion has been displaced by the worship of an individual who’s credited with the development of magical powers in three-hundred of his disciples. Depending on your point of view, you can either see this man as an analogue of Jesus or a peace-loving hippie. Having collected a large group of people we then have the darkly amusing threeway split between the mythology and the facts as recalled by two different people who were there. In the religiously and politically correct version, the entire group was surrounded by an army preparing to slaughter them as fanatics and terrorists. The leader then inspired the core of three-hundred believers who wiped out the armies around them and then went on to create the current empire. The oral history has the leader conducting a drug trial on his unsuspecting followers. Most died or became insane, but a group survived more or less intact. Two factions acquired supernatural powers. One group hewed to the “give peace a chance” philosophy of their leader. The second saw a route to military power and political dominance. The third seemed not to have acquired powers. They separated and have largely avoided fighting each other although the neutrality of the pacifists has been sorely tested by the atrocities perpetrated by the militarists.
In a sense, this might have remained a rather academic dispute, but some of these mages have lived for six-hundred years while discovering they can pass their magical abilities to their children (there’s a further interesting side effect which will make a pleasant surprise when you read it). For plotting purposes, we have the offspring of the whole blood feted as powerful, while the level of achievement declines depending on the ancestry. As in caucasian culture, we have fine distinctions based on half-blood, quadroon, octoroon, and so on. Perhaps the most populist of the fictional explorations of this theme have been in the Harry Potter series where bigotry and active discrimination bedevil relationships between the magicians themselves, and between the magicians and the muggles. Thematically, this book also has a short Hogwarts element where we see young magicians being trained in the different arts.
As world-building, we seem to have a rather interesting situation. On our world, we had a coherent land mass on which our species could begin its evolutionary rise to dominance. Movement of the tectonic plates then slowly produced the current distribution of land about the planet. Obviously, there are oceans stretching several thousand miles between continents. That’s why the human species is widely dispersed. As the configuration of the land changed, so our ancestors moved from one area to another to hunt and gather. It would be interesting to know whether this world followed a similar pattern of geological development given the closer proximity of the moon.
If the moon is so close and the gravitational force it exerts is strong enough to produce the equivalent of a very low tide which lasts for two years, where does the water go? If it’s being drawn to a different part of the world, do we assume this part of the world is flooded for two years? The moon’s effect cannot be to cause immediate evaporation of the seas. So why does the part of the world we can see not flood at their equivalent period of high tide? Put it this way. The gap between these two continents is only some three-hundred miles and, at one period of time, the water level drops to the point where the mages can build a bridge on the not quite exposed sea bed, you would expect there to be a matching period when the sea inundates the low-lying land on both sides of the sea. Yet there are no dykes as in the Netherlands and no historical records of agriculture being cyclically disrupted by the arrival of large quantities of salt water. Then there’s the mystery of the moon that does not bark in the night. If this moon is so close it can have this effect on the fluid dynamics of the seas, why is the land so stable? I was expecting there to be fairly continuous seismic activity, yet there are no reports of tremors and earthquakes. The latest research suggests seismic activity is more likely in areas where the gravity field is weak. Higher gravity slows the frictional behaviour of the fault lines, i.e. if the area has higher gravity for longer periods of time, the tectonic plates are less likely to slip. So if the moon’s gravitational effect is producing wider variations in the subduction zones, you would expect more instability in some areas.
Ah but, wait a moment. This is high fantasy and so the world-building doesn’t have to match currently scientific thinking. A fantasy author is free to establish his or her own “ground” rules for how stuff like gravity works, particularly if mages can defy gravity to fly carpets and boats. The only things required are that the way the world works is coherently described (if not explained) and the magic system must not be capricious, i.e. it must be subject to predefined rules which produce known strengths and weaknesses. On this basis, I’m pleased to announce this is in the top three fantasy books I’ve read this year. Ignoring all the previous issues, this fantasy has two strengths.
The first is the characterisation. Over the fairly considerable length of the book, we meet a significant cast of characters, but even the relatively minor are given a chance to make their mark. In a sense, this reflects the overall theme of the book which is that, no matter how powerful individual mages may be, the future of the world ultimately depends on the less powerful or, in magical terms, those individuals who have never developed magical powers. Someone always has to do the work or fight in armies when called upon to do so. Hence, we have three major narrative arcs. One features one of the original three-hundred who leads the Peace Faction and foresees the need to produce children. He therefore buys a fertile wife with no magical power. Snatched away from her home, the man she would have married follows to seek revenge. The second shows us three youngsters who get caught up in a political situation because one incautiously speculates that a magical artifact may be hidden in their area. This flirts with YA tropes but just stays on the right side of the line albeit that the “hero” is relatively underpowered and naive. The final arc features two powerful individuals who spy for the dominant militarists. Through them, we get to see the inner working of the empire’s leadership — not a pretty sight.
The second strength is the lack of sentimentality in the plot. Too often fantasy stories deal with simplistic black-and-white characters in replays of mediaeval, Wild West or more modern military scenarios. The good, the bad and, occasionally, the ugly draw weapons appropriate for the level of technology and have-at-it until only the good and, occasionally, the ugly are left standing. In this plot, we have every shade on the way from black to white with expediency shading the response of individuals in each situation. This eschews the tendency of the good to be paradigms of virtue who are always courageous, living their lives according to a higher moral code. The majority in this book are “complicated” with no saints and only one or two irredeemably bad. It’s also refreshing to see even the most powerful come unstuck. This can be because of vanity, paranoia or a blind chance. Wishful thinking and misplaced affection also have their parts to play. In short, this book feels like a slice of real life albeit transposed to a fantasy setting.
Accepting the need for some infodumping to introduce the magic system as we go along, this is a bravura piece of writing and, even though not the most original when it comes to individual plot elements, the overall effect is spectacular. Mage’s Blood is strongly recommended. I see Book Two in The Moontide Quartet is already published in the UK. Hopefully a copy will come my way soon.
For a review of the sequel, see The Scarlet Tides.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.