Books Considered: The City in the Lake, by Rachel Neumeier; A Young Man Without Magic, by Lawrence Watt-Evans
At Archon last year I shared a panel with Rachel Neumeier, whose first novel, The City in the Lake, was published by Knopf in 2008. Rachel was kind enough to give me a copy, and I've finally gotten around to reading it.
It's a YA novel, a fantasy, in general outline a fairly conventional YA fantasy, but quite well done, and achieving real beauty at times. Some of it reminded me a bit of Le Guin, particularly the first Earthsea Trilogy, not in plot in any way, but rather something of the feel of the book. I liked it quite a bit, and I hope to see more from Neumeier.
It is set in a mostly peaceful kingdom. The King has two sons. The elder, called the Bastard, is the son of a mysterious woman who came to the City, more or less seduced the King, and then left after bearing his child. The younger is the son of the Queen, a much younger woman who married the King years later. The younger son is of course the heir, and he is widely beloved. The Bastard is instead widely feared, but it seems not for good reasons -- he is in fact an honest man, and very capable, and has no wish to supplant his half-brother as heir -- but people just assume he does. Then the younger son disappears, and no one can find him, and things in the Kingdom start to go wrong.
In a pleasant village remote from the central City, a girl named Timou grows up. Her father, Kapoen, is a wizard, a rather powerful wizard for such a small village, but he is accepted, and does well by the village. Timou never knew her mother, however. She grows up happily enough, learning from her father how to be a wizard, and making friends with the village children, but somehow remaining rather separate. When a young man, Jonas, begins to court her, she puts him off, though she likes him, because she has learned from Kapoen that wizarding and marriage do not mix. Then one spring, as Timou turns 17, disaster strikes: the animals fail to bear, trees won't bear fruit, and Timou's just married friends have stillborn children. The villagers learn that the Crown Prince has disappeared, and of course it is assumed that his disappearance is the reason for the disasters ... Kapoen decides he must travel to the City to help the court wizards find out what has happened, but he charges Timou to stay put.
Of course, after a while she decides she must go to the City as well ... to look for the Prince, or for her father, or for her mother perhaps? She must first travel through the strange forest between her and the City, and that is a strange journey indeed. Then she comes to the City, and also its parallel City, in the Lake, and finds something quite unexpected there. Meanwhile the King has also disappeared, and the Queen blames the Bastard ... And Jonas follows Timou, against her express instructions, and he finds that the path through the forest is different for all different people. Of course, all these people are key to the eventual solution, which is nicely handled, and resolved well, not without loss, but not sadly.
The magic in this book often seems arbitrary, but in quite effective ways. It comes across as magic, not just a different sort of science. The worldbuilding is undeniably rather thin -- at times the world seems to consist only of city/village/forest ... but this isn't a novel that rests on worldbuilding. It rests rather on the characters, and on a little familial tangle, and on magic -- and one some quite nice set pieces, some quite dramatic scenes. Very nice work.
Lawrence Watt-Evans' 2009 novel is A Young Man Without Magic. It is the first of a pair -- not that Tor tells us that, as is too often their habit. It does end dramatically, and at a logical stopping point, but the story certainly isn't over. (And I really wanted to have the next book right then to continue reading!)
Anrel Murau is the title character. Both his parents were sorcerers, who died in a magical accident. He was raised by his uncle, also a sorcerer, and the Burgrave of Alzur, a town in the province of Aulix, in the Empire of Walasia. In Walasia one becomes an aristocrat by displaying a talent for sorcery, and those of sufficient ability can become Burgraves (in control of a town) or Landgraves (in control of a province) or Margraves (in control of a border area). So Anrel is in an ambiguous state: he has grown up in an aristocratic milieu, but he is not one himself, and as the novel opens, after four years as a student in the capitol city, Lume, he is returning home and wondering what to do with himself. His best friend is his uncle's foster son, a child of commoners who showed sorcerous ability, Lord Valin. Lord Valin is a political firebrand who advocates more power for the common people, and as the current Emperor is apparently a fool, and has bankrupted the realm, his ideas have some currency, though Anrel thinks him foolish. At any rate, a Great Council is being called by the Emperor, and Valin hopes that real political change will result.
The local Landgrave, Lord Allutar, is a powerful sorcerer but, we are told, a rather nasty man. And soon we see him planning to execute a local commoner for a minor crime, thievery, in order to perform some black magic. Valin is furious, Anrel pragmatic, and Anrel's cousin, Lady Saria, oddly unmoved -- it seems she is scheming to marry Lord Allutar. Anrel finds himself trying to stop Valin from making an enemy of the much more powerful Allutar, with no success, all of which leads to a shocking event that drives Anrel to a curious action -- a political speech of his own, followed by a forced exile from his home province and a period of wandering with a group of witches (illegal sorcerers) until his path crosses Lord Allutar again, and the novel ends with an even more shocking event.
After a slightly slow beginning, in which we are perhaps told too much instead of shown. (For example, we are told that Lord Allutar is a bad man, but what we are shown at first is much more ambiguous.) But once Anrel is forced to take action of his own, the story picks up, and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. And as I said, by the end I was fully absorbed and I really wanted to start the next book right away.
I've glossed over most of the plot to avoid spoilers, as there are some interesting revelations that I think should be left for the reader to discover, but that make it hard to discuss details. It is much of a piece with Watt-Evans's typical work -- a hero who is determinedly "ordinary" and forced, mostly against his will, to take a larger role in events; a generally commonsensical approach to all aspects of the world: magic is quite rule-based, and controlled; politics is treated rather pragmatically and almost cynically but not quite; love affairs even are sort of backgrounded. Good solid work from a writer who never disappoints.