As The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee begins, a curse is sweeping across the Seven Kingdoms, starting in the east and slowly trickling westwards across the land. Anyone who drinks curse-tainted water becomes a mindless, bloodthirsty monster, attacking friends and family alike. There’s only one way to stop the curse: a royal who is also descended from witches must touch and spill some blood on three stones spread throughout the land. Unfortunately, witches are considered monsters by most of the Seven Kingdoms: victims of an unfounded prejudice that thinks them guilty of a list of unlikely crimes, including blood sacrifice and bestiality. Because of this, it comes as a surprise when a diplomatic delegation of witches arrives at the royal court of King Esger, announcing that one of Esger’s sons, Prince Harkeld, has the blood of witches in his veins. Harkeld is forced to flee the court with the witches, pursued by his father’s soldiers, because Esger wants to take advantage of the devastation caused by the curse and invade a neighboring kingdom… and his own son is the only thing that could save the Kingdoms but hamper his father’s imperialistic plans.
From this basic premise, Emily Gee spins out three main narrative threads. The main one follows Prince Harkeld as he flees his father’s kingdom, pursued by soldiers and protected by a band of mages. Because he is repulsed by anything witch-related, the mages are forced to take turns posing as Justen, a common armsman who can stay at Harkeld’s side, despite the taboo against shape-changing into a different human form. Innis is one of the strongest mages, so she spends most of the time as Justen, but as she is female and forced to remain close to the prince in her male form, some predictable tensions ensue. A second story thread follows Brigitta, Harkeld’s younger sister, who is about to be married off to the much older Duke Rikard, commander of King Esger’s army. Brigitta’s maid Yasma and her trusty armsman Karel are both bondservants, forced to serve the royals so their own families can be free, but they are loyal to their princess because of her innate kindness. The third and final narrative follows Yaumé, a young farmboy whose family members become some of the curse’s first victims. He flees his home and tries to survive as he runs for safety. While this is initially a minor story-line, there are indications towards the end of The Sentinel Mage that Yaumé will become more important in future volumes of the CURSED KINGDOMS trilogy.
The Sentinel Mage, about 500 pages long, consists of 70 short chapters, so the book reads quickly, and because Emily Gee knows how to tell a story, it reads smoothly too. The pages practically turn themselves, as they say. Unfortunately that’s about the only positive aspect of the book, because from the summary above you can probably tell that the story is so unoriginal and predictable that anyone who reads enough fantasy will probably have encountered at least one or two of its elements before. A prince with forbidden magic in his blood; a princess forced to marry an older noble; a young farmboy forced to flee his home… It almost feels like painting-by-numbers fantasy, which is unfortunate because Emily Gee’s story-telling skills are great and could have been applied to a much more interesting tale.
Another issue is the overly repetitive emphasis on certain story elements. Early on in the book, you’ll all too frequently find Harkeld thinking about the mages who save him as monsters. It happens almost every other page for a while, setting up the tension between his prejudices and his latent magical powers in such a grating way that the eventual (and predictable) revelation almost comes as a relief. Later on, Brigitta’s armsman Karel mourns the fate of his princess almost every time he’s on scene, which almost always includes a reference to Duke Rikard “rutting” or “tupping” her against her will. Also, Karel being a relative outsider means he gets mocked and taunted by his colleagues — seemingly almost every time he is in their company. Some of these things could have been mentioned just once or twice, not over and over.
Admittedly, there are some great scenes and clever turns in the novel. The battle scenes involving the shape-shifting mages are exciting — in fact, most of Harkeld’s story line is one big chase scene, so if the issues mentioned above don’t distract you, this could still be a captivating read for you. Also fun: as the mages take turns playing Harkeld’s armsman Justen, they educate the prince in the ways of magic and the nature of the curse by having Justen, feigning ignorance, pose leading questions to the others, which is a neat way of handling an info dump. Unfortunately the entire ruse of having a gender-bending mage-in-disguise who can remain close to the prince is a bit overplayed throughout the book, but the one thing I’m curious about in future volumes of the CURSED KINGDOMS is exactly how extreme the prince’s reaction will be once he finds out about this trickery.
If you’re in the mood for a light, fun fantasy novel and don’t mind some predictability and lack of originality, The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee might be worth a try. Unfortunately, even though light popcorn fantasy can be fun at times, this popcorn is just a bit too bland and stale to be enjoyable.