Magebane by Lee Arthur Chane is a stand-alone fantasy novel that… Wait. I’m going to stop there and let you read that sentence again. Yes, you read correctly — “a stand-alone fantasy novel.” Magebane is not part of a duology, quartet, or trilogy-to-eventually-be-expanded-into-a-number-to-be-named-later. So good for him. I almost want to just leave it at that — praise for the simple concept that an entire story can be told in the scope of a few hundred (well, OK, 500) pages. But that wouldn’t be much of a review. So, onward and upward (mostly).
Nearly a thousand years ago, the MageLords fled a Commoner revolution by transporting themselves to the kingdom of Evrenfels, cut off from the outside world (and those pesky common non-magic folk save those they brought along as handy servants or craftsmen or the like) by the Great Barrier, impregnable to magic and to outside interference. And for all that time, they have ruled Evrenfels with the same nonchalant cruelty and arrogance that brought about that first revolution. But the times they are a-changing. Lord Falk, Minister of Public Safety, wants to break down the Barrier and lead the Magelords out to conquer once more. Tagaza, First Mage, also wants the Barrier down, though for reasons of his own. And there is a third, more mysterious figure who desires the same goal, again for reasons of their own, reasons far different from those of the other two. As those three conspire, the Commoners stuck inside the barrier and treated as slaves or animals by the MageLords are beginning to get restless, as an underground group seems determined to foster resentment and possibly even another revolution.
Meanwhile, beyond the Barrier, the MageLords have dwindled into distant myths and fairy tales as the world has been transformed by democracy and technology. Those two revolutionary concepts will soon breach the unbreachable Barrier in the person of Anton, a young boy who with his Professor mentor flies over the Barrier in the Professor’s newly invented airship.
Anton, together with Evrenfell’s Prince Karl and Lord Falk’s own ward, a young woman named Brenna, become catalysts in events that threaten to spiral well out of Lord Falk’s tight-fisted control. And matters aren’t helped by the seeming appearance of another Magebane, a mythical figure who a millennium ago was able to lead the first Commoner revolution due to its unique power: a Magebane is not only immune to magic, but reflects it back upon its wielders.
Magebane certainly has its flaws and works through some of the usual suspects of character type and plotting, some of which I’ll detail later, but overall I enjoyed this read. It was a mostly fluid ride through an interesting set of situations with either likable good characters or interesting not-so-good characters. It didn’t wow me; I wish parts of it had been executed a bit more fully or sharply, but it kept me going straight through to a pretty strong ending.
The situations throughout the novel, beginning with its premise, are cleverly constructed and shifty enough to maintain constant interest. I liked the idea of a group of powerful magic-users walled off from the world, continuing on in their same-old-same-old culture while the world outside spun on in its own more typical way. (I actually wish a bit more had been done with that outside world or the contact between them, but oh well). It’s pretty common in fantasy that we’re presented with a world about to change, but usually we get it from the “uh-oh, the Dark Lord is rising against us” side of things and the world is changing because oops, they forgot about the last time the Dark Lord rose and got all complacent or short-tempered with each other and now they’ve got to put together a spunky outnumbered band of mismatched heroes. Here, though, we get the Dark Lord (kind of) side of things; we get to see him planning the rise and break out. Even better, the Dark Lord has to sneak around and even kill a few fellow Dark Lords to do so. I also like how rather than getting a fellowship, err, band together to go on a quest and defeat the DL or destroy an artifact (or get a needed artifact), one of the opponents just literally accidentally drops in. And that’s as far as I’ll take the Dark Lord because really, Falk and the other MageLords are more like small-minded nasty manor lords who can do magic than Big Evil Floating Eye or Satan-Like Dark Lords.
So anyway, I like the opening premise and the somewhat unusual perspective we get on the world about to change and who’s doing the change and who’s going to stop the change. Chane does a nice job as well of shifting this underlying premise around and giving us different slants on it as Falk, Tagaza, and the other person who wants the Barrier down work together but also at odds, each trying to gain an advantage on the other. Their goal is the same, but not their reasons for their goal or what they want to happen after they achieve their goal. It makes for a richer stew of conspiracy as well as some unpredictable moments. There’s also a strong and darkly complex thread of “when do the ends justify the means” that runs throughout the book, lending it more substance and depth than some fantasies.
The characters sometimes fall into types: the befuddled young man, the sheltered young girl, the prince who wants to be more than he is. Sometimes the plot does as well — the thrown-together-for-a short-time-so-we-must-be-in-love storyline gets its due not once but twice. But for the most part the individuals stand out as individuals. Falk is a great character in his cold analytic nature and single-mindedness. His mysterious ally is another complex character, one that discomfits the reader. The younger characters — Anton, Brenna, and Karl — aren’t quite as complex or compelling as the adult characters, but all are well-drawn and interesting in their growth, if a bit predictable in that growth.
As stated, there are some flaws, such as the aforementioned character types and plot types. There are a few too many scenes where characters need to act a bit less intelligent than they usually appear in order to progress the plot. The prose is serviceable, but I can’t say there are any lines that make you want to stop and reread them for their richness or precision or stylistic creativity. To be honest, these were all noticeable enough that I did note them as I read, but they never really detracted overmuch (save for a few of those acting-too-dumb scenes) from the reading experience. I never dropped out of enjoying the book even while I noted some weaknesses, and the end wrapped up strongly and conclusively. So despite its relatively minor issues, I happily recommend Magebane and I’ll certainly give Chane’s next novel a try based on this one.