And it’s time for my second blog tour of the day – this time it’s a review of Angel Mage, the fun new fantasy from Garth Nix!
Book: Angel Mage by Garth Nix
Read before: No
Ownership: I won an ARC in a raffle, and then Gollancz sent a hardback free of charge for the blog tour. All opinions are my own.
More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.
A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.
Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.
But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.
The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else…
So, I really enjoyed this, but it wasn’t at all what I was expecting! I thought it would be a dense epic fantasy with a lot of magical philosophy and the politics of a ruined country (think Brandon Sanderson via Tigana), but it’s actually a fairly light-hearted romp with a strong influence from Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers!
There’s rather a large cast of characters, and the book opens by rotating viewpoints between the antagonist and the four main characters, who are unwittingly being drawn into her plot. But aside from this, there feels like there’s an enormous world around and behind the characters at the forefront, and although the events of the plot have impact on a global scale, most of the interactions are cleverly kept on the personal level, which keeps it in the realm of fun adventure, rather than epic fantasy. One thing I really enjoyed was the highlighting of women and people of colour throughout the book, from the highest level to the lowest. Though many of the characters are based on (or at least refer to) characters from Dumas’s work, the majority have been made women, which is a great way to pay homage without imitating the male-heavy cast.
Liliath, the antagonist, is a great character to read – she’s the sort of villain who believes she is wholly right, which makes her very compelling for other characters and for readers. She’s got a sort of Joan of Arc thing going on, where she has a deep connection to an angel, but she’d definitely on the psychopathic side of determined. Of our four main characters, I definitely had a favourite and a least favourite, which I think is purely down to preferring Ravenclaw protagonists to Gryffindor ones. Dorotea is an absentminded scholar with a talent for icon-making, and I was happiest in her viewpoint chapters as we got to see a little bit into the details of the magic system and the workings of the angels. I was less enamoured by the hot-headed Agnez, who wants to be a musketeer and… that’s pretty much it. She’s the sort of character I can see people admiring for her bluntness, drive, and general coolness, but there were others I preferred. Simeon and Henri, the remaining members of our quartet, were solid, fun characters who were very much ‘normal’ guys who just happened to get caught up in a grand adventure, which is always a lot of fun to read.
I was really interested by the magic system, in which characters can call on angels via painted icons, and ask the angels to act on their behalf. The angels are of different ranks, with different powers and scopes, and calling upon them will take a measure of time off your life commensurate to the rank of the angel (a cherub may take minutes; an archangel, decades). It’s a balance between need and consequence, and though the book doesn’t explore it in the detail I would have wished, it’s a very interesting system. My friend Moon has pointed out that apart from the fantastic aspect, it is very similar to the way saints are called upon in her experience in Mexico, and I feel like this is corroborated by what I know of saints in Malta – they have scopes and talents of different sizes, and you pray to one or another for specific situations (for example, St Anthony can help with finding lost things). This magic system, then, seems to draw heavily from real world religions, especially Catholicism, and I’d be interested to see a religious reader’s take on it. For me, I wanted a little more, but I really enjoyed what we did see!
The Musketeer vibes of this one keep it pacey, and though it’s a sizeable tome, it doesn’t drag. It’s the sort of thing I’d recommend to friends who want to get started in historical fantasy, and I think it should have good YA crossover appeal. For me, it gets four out of five cats!