Battlemage: One of my favourites this year. Best read while listening to heavy metal.

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Not too long ago, as I pondered which book to read next, it came to me on a whim that I was craving an epic fantasy novel where wars were battled with not only bow and sword, but with devastating magic. Granted, it’s a simple wish. I wasn’t looking for a deep exploration of human relationships or an allegory about the state of our current world. I just wanted to read about some big-ass battles fought with dazzling magic. I went to Amazon to search for that hypothetical book and the first search word that popped into my mind was “battlemage.” Lo and behold, right there as the first result of my query, was Stephen Aryan’s debut, aptly named, Battlemage. I read its description and it felt as if all my prayers had been answered. I clicked the pre-order button.

The premise of Battlemage is simple. War is coming to Seveldrom as a mad king has risen and united, through force and deceit, several other nations in an alliance fuelled by the lust of bloodshed and religious fervour. Aided by a rogue Battlemage going by the name of Warlock, and the Splinters, his apprentices, thousands upon thousands of soldiers are on route to crash into the walls of Charas and bring about the demise of Seveldrom.

For their right to exist unsubdued, Seveldrom will fight on three simultaneous fronts: through the shadowy plays of spycraft, the thick lines of soldiers, and the awesome destructive potential of the titular Battlemages. Talandra, daughter of King Matthias, is the strong willed and independent head of Intelligence in Seveldrom, renowned for the depth and reach of her connections and her mysterious Black Library, which is said to contain secrets about everyone of importance. Vargus, an experienced warrior, is introduced to us as he kills a group of bandits after they’ve raided his village, and we soon learn that he will be travelling to Charas to join the war effort as a common soldier. Balfruss is a Battlemage, one of the few people with access to the Source and who have undergone the strenuous training at the Red Tower. As Battlemage, he is “a massive crushing force that could flatten mountains, butcher armies and turn the tide of a war, if unopposed.”

Of these three viewpoint characters, the one with the most surprises up his sleeve has got to be Vargus. While my description of him might sound dull, as far as fantasy characters go, that description probably only fits him through the first 30 pages of the book, for as the story progresses, we learn that there is much more to him than meets the eye. In fact that’s one of Stephen Aryan’s strengths — his ability to make “generic” fantasy characters so interesting.

Aryan’s writing style is also well-suited for this type of story and, coupled with the never-relenting pace of the novel – hence my suggestion to couple this read with a heavy metal album — I just couldn’t put Battlemage down. For me it was one of those books where I wanted to spend every spare moment reading it to find out what was going to happen next, even when I probably had other things I should be doing. (I may or may not have been reading Battlemage during class.)

That is not to say that Battlemage is without fault. Various plot ingredients are too familiar. The clear good versus evil dichotomy is more in line with the epic fantasy of decades ago, and some aspects of the worldbuilding could have been more fleshed out. I noticed this somewhere after the midpoint of the book when I noticed that there only seemed to be a handful of people managing the entire kingdom of Seveldrom. Where are the noble families? If the king for some reason does not manage to produce an heir, how will the succession of the throne be handled? Where are all the officers of the army? These are small missing details, but they’re the kind that, when you notice them, they stay in the back of your mind while you read.

It’s worth noting that even though I pointed out that the good/evil dichotomy feels like an idea whose time has come and gone, I don’t think it’s a severe flaw. My thinking is that it would be a severe flaw in a book in which a lot of other things do not work, but given that Battlemage handles pretty much everything else that is essential in a story in a more than satisfactory way, I would say that the good/evil dichotomy, while out of touch with the current tendencies of fantasy literature, is not much of a problem. Maybe sometimes knowing who to root for and who to dislike is actually a nice change of pace? Other people might find it more of a problem than I did, as they say, different strokes for different folks, so that was why I chose to give Battlemage a 4.5 star rating rather than the 5 star rating it was for me.

Looking back through the scores of books I have read this year, there are books which I thought were more accomplished, that explored avenues of thought and emotion more deftly and thoughtfully than Battlemage. But if, while reading, I were to make a pencil mark every time I reached those highs every reader experiences once in a while when reading a book which speaks to his or her own private soul, then Battlemage must take the crown as the book which elicited more marks than any other. And to think that it all started because on a whim I went looking for a book where wars were fought with magic. I will be anxiously looking for the sequel, Bloodmage, which will be published in 2016.

Publication date: September 22, 2015. “I can command storms, summon fire and unmake stone,” Balfruss growled. “It’s dangerous to meddle with things you don’t understand.” Balfruss is a battlemage, sworn to fight and die for a country that fears and despises his kind. Vargus is a common soldier — while mages shoot lightning from the walls of the city, he’s down in the front lines getting blood on his blade. Talandra is a princess and spymaster, but the war may force her to risk everything and make the greatest sacrifice of all. Magic and mayhem collide in this explosive epic fantasy from a major new talent.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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4 comments

  1. (You do realize that your opening paragraph reads as if you cast a spell and had it be successful, right?)

    I like that the battle takes place on various “fronts,” with intelligence gathering being part of it (and a cache of secret files! I’m a sucker for secret files). I think you’re right that in this case, when the purpose of the book is primarily action, suspense and battle scenes, that ” good vs evil” with no shading works just fine.

    This is not the kind of book I lean toward, but you brought it to life for me. Thanks!

  2. This sounds like a lot of fun, and I already have a few albums in mind that I could listen to while reading it. :)

  3. That one went straight into the shopping cart. Thanks, Joao!

    • Joao Eira /

      My pleasure. It’s a pretty self contained story so you can read that one and then decide whether to continue with the trilogy or not (and I hope you like the book enough to do so!)

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