The Gossamer Mage: A mixed bag

The Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda

I really wanted to like The Gossamer Mage (2019) by Julie E. Czerneda, because there is so much to like in it: the premise, the themes, the character cores. But more than usual, I felt the book was fighting me the whole way, so that while it always was in the realm of wholly enjoyable, something always got in the way of it reaching its full potential.

The story is set in the relatively small, isolated land of Tananen, apparently the only place in this world that still has magic, though it’s a particularly costly form. The magic is a “gift” from the Deathless Goddess, who bestows her magic words in different fashion to men and women. Men with the “gift” can be mage scribes, people who can write the Goddess’ words with “intention” and thus create made creatures such as unfailing oxen, powerful bodyguards, illuminating insects, etc. (Sometimes the mage makes an error and ends up with a “gossamer” — a wild, unbound creature of singular whimsy.) All of this comes with a catch, though. First, each such spell costs some of the mage’s life so that they age at a highly accelerated rate. One might think young mages, therefore, would be pretty miserly about how much magic they do, but that isn’t the case. One reason is simply the universal belief of the young that they’ll never age and die. The other is that they are driven to do magic; it comes on them as an impossible-to-resist urge, at least in their prime years. Women, meanwhile, can speak the Goddess’ words but cannot write them. They don’t pay the same price as the men, but the Goddess can at any time choose to “spend” them to achieve some purpose.

Julie E. Czerneda

Julie E. Czerneda

Early in The Gossamer Mage we meet one of the main characters, an old-in-body mage named Mal who has decided to make it his mission to kill the Deathless Goddess and so end this horrible exchange of lives for magic. The other major character is Kait, one of the Goddess’s disciples on her own mission — to discover why she and other acolytes can no longer hear the Goddess’s voice and to discover if it has anything to do with the mysterious voices they do hear, evil whispers from stone and sea. Their paths meet when both encounter a young man who is uniquely able to create malevolent made creatures that kill.

The idea of magic usage costing life isn’t a wholly unique premise. One finds it in other fantasies here and there (heck, we, and I’m sure others, used to build it into our “spell points” back in my D&D days), but I’ve always liked when magic has a sharp cost to it. Czerneda does an excellent job in conveying the wrenching nature of that price throughout the novel, not just through Mal, but through other mages we meet as well as through Kait’s feelings about her own son receiving the “gift” and heading off to the mage school. The concept, and the way it plays out, is definitely one of the strengths of the novel.

The two major characters are another. Mal’s steadfast belief that the whole evil system needs to be brought down lends him an urgency and a bite that makes him a mostly compelling creation, as well as lending some (though not enough) tension to his relationship with Kait, whose goal above all else is to protect the Goddess. Her character lacks the fiery urgency of Mal’s, but is equally engaging thanks to her own determination, the way she grows into her role from a young country girl to the voice of the Goddess ordering around powerful mages (a nice contrast to Mal whom we meet at the peak of his power), and the added emotionality of her role as mother to a young son whose own power will greatly shorten his life. A few side characters, such as a mage friend of Mal’s and Mal’s servant have small but effectively moving scenes.

The underlying themes, the idea of intent and sacrifice, the cost of convenience and luxury, as well as others I don’t want to go into so as to avoid spoilers, add a level of depth and thoughtfulness to the story, leaving the reader with more than a little to consider past the ending.

All that said, while the positives did end up outweighing the negatives, it was a closer call than I would have preferred. While I did like the magic system as portrayed, it didn’t feel like it fully held together. I was never quite clear on how much aging resulted from magic and at times that relationship felt somewhat random at best and contradictory at worst. While I understood the forceful, supernatural urge to do magic if one had the gift, since “older” mages typically give up writing magic to train younger ones, it wasn’t quite clear to me how all the magic in the land got done, especially the more frivolous usages. Not just the lords’ luxuries (did they have a means to compel mages?) but the mages’ usage themselves, as when Mal says at one point that no mage would bother using a tinder to make fire (even it if saves one months or years, or even days? I’d imagine fires are a pretty common necessity).

The plotting was also uneven. I liked where Czerneda went with the “evil villain mage” storyline, though it felt a bit choppy and abrupt, but other parts of the plot felt quite thin or even somewhat abandoned, decisions seemed odd at times and more for the sake of plot necessity than what characters would actually do (or at least debate doing), and it felt like there was a bit too much time spent on more mundane aspects of, say, a journey.

While the two major characters were quite vividly drawn, beyond the two noted above, the side characters, despite having some strong potential, were relatively two-dimensional with only a few glimpses of what they could have been (both individually and in their relationships to one another). And the adversarial forces were even less vivid in their conception and portrayal, and also made some odd choices.

Finally, it’s been a while since I felt myself struggling so much with an author’s style and structure. While it was always clear whose point-of-view I was in, the shifts were too frequent and came too soon for my own personal liking. Worse, though, was the sentence structure, which often felt choppy and overly condensed. I can’t think of the last time I had to reread so many sentences, something that greatly distracted from the reading experience.

The Gossamer Mage, therefore, was a mixed bag for me, with the positive aspects just barely eking out a victory over the more problematic elements. I’d therefore give it a hesitant recommendation in recognition that some might find the style and structure less off-putting and the lack of clarity/consistency less problematic, but with a warning that if those aspects are detracting from your enjoyment early on, they aren’t going to improve going forward.

Published in August 2019. From an Aurora Award-winning author comes a new fantasy epic in which one mage must stand against a Deathless Goddess who controls all magic. Only in Tananen do people worship a single deity: the Deathless Goddess. Only in this small, forbidden realm are there those haunted by words of no language known to woman or man. The words are Her Gift, and they summon magic. Mage scribes learn to write Her words as intentions: spells to make beasts or plants, designed to any purpose. If an intention is flawed, what the mage creates is a gossamer: a magical creature as wild and free as it is costly for the mage. For Her Gift comes at a steep price. Each successful intention ages a mage until they dare no more. But her magic demands to be used; the Deathless Goddess will take her fee, and mages will die. To end this terrible toll, the greatest mage in Tananen vows to find and destroy Her. He has yet to learn She is all that protects Tananen from what waits outside. And all that keeps magic alive.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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