Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Kellen Tavadon, son of the Arch-Mage Lycaelon, thought he knew the way the world worked. His father, leading the wise and benevolent Council of Mages, protected and guided the citizens of the Golden City of the Bells. Young Mages in training-all men, for women were unfit to practice magic-memorized the intricate details of High Magic and aspired to seats on the council.
Then he found the forbidden Books of Wild Magic-or did they find him? The three slim volumes woke Kellen to the wide world outside the City’s isolating walls. Their Magic was not dead, strangled by rules and regulations. It felt like a living thing, guided by the hearts and minds of those who practiced it and benefited from it.
Questioning everything he has known, Kellen discovers too many of the City’s dark secrets. Banished, with the Outlaw Hunt on his heels, Kellen invokes Wild Magic-and finds himself running for his life with a unicorn at his side.
Kellen’s life changes almost faster than he can understand or accept. Rescued by a unicorn, healed by a female Wild Mage who knows more about Kellen than anyone outside the City should, meeting Elven royalty and Elven warriors, and plunged into a world where the magical beings he has learned about as abstract concepts are flesh and blood creatures-Kellen both revels in and fears his new freedom.
Especially once he learns about Demons. He’d always thought they were another abstract concept-a stand-in for ultimate evil. But if centaurs and dryads are real, then Demons surely are as well. And the one thing all the Mages of the City agreed on was that practicing Wild Magic corrupted a Mage. Turned him into a Demon. Would that be Kellen’s fate?
Deep in Obsidian Mountain, the Demons are waiting. Since their defeat in the last great War, they’ve been biding their time, sowing the seeds of distrust and discontent between their human and Elven enemies. Very soon now, when the Demons rise to make war, there will be no alliance between High and Wild Magic to stand against them. And all the world will belong to the Endarkened.
Thoughts: Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory teamed up to do an epic fantasy in an expansive world with a fairly rich, if somewhat unoriginal, history. In Armethalieh, the tongue-twistingly-name Golden City of Bells, where everything is taken care of thanks to mages, Kellen is an unhappy teen who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a mage himself, thinking magic to be too stuffy and boring. But then he stumbles across the books of Wild Magic, forbidden texts, and from there his life turns upside down.
There are so many stereotypes and tropes running through this novel that it could almost be a game to spot them all. A bored and rebellious teen. A heavy patriarchy, keeping women in their place. An oppressive government. The discovery that women aren’t evil after all. A flirtatious centaur. Aloof elves. Demons with a plot to take over the world by corruption of its inhabitants. There definitely some rather creative elements in the novel, particularly with the way Wild Magic works, but for the most part, Lackey and Mallory don’t present us with anything we haven’t seen many times before.
The book is long, and like many novels involving Lackey, fairly slow-going with a lot of set-up, switching viewpoints from chapter to chapter so that we not only see through the eyes of the teenage protagonist Kellen, but also through his father, his father’s assistant, and thus we get glimpses into political events, schemes for betrayal and corruption, and many other things that help set the tone for Armethalieh as a more oppressive city than it looks at first blush, or as we may come to expect from a single cynical viewpoint of a young man chafing at his mundane life. Kellen thankfully does a fair bit of growing up as the book goes on, which is quite welcome since in the beginning he could get quite whiny, often rebellious for the sake of rebellion, and often deliberately didn’t do what he was supposed to just because it would annoy other people.
Much of the story was told ploddingly, with plenty of emphasis given to Kellen’s developing skill and understanding, the minutiae of life wherever he (or whatever other character we’re following) lives through, which makes it detailed and full of strong imagery, but also slows the story’s progression. I don’t know if Mallory is known for this, but I know for certain that Lackey is, and she seems to have developed some sort of super-power over the years so that the book stays interesting while very little is actually happening. Shalkan the unicorn provides witty and sarcastic dialogue, the elves may be aloof but their culture is fascinating, and the Endarkened may be an entire race of evil demons in love with torture devices, but they have an interesting underworld worth exploring.
It should be mentioned that this book has become my go-to book for examples of why editing is necessary even with big name authors who can sell books based on name alone. It’s a small error, but, well, allow me to illustrate:
It’s a facepalm moment, one that should have been caught but for some reason wasn’t. It doesn’t change anything about the story, doesn’t make anything beyond that one exchange not make sense. Little errors like this seem to crop up a fair bit in Lackey’s works, I’ve noticed, little fact-checking problems that don’t do much beyond making me raise an eyebrow and give the book a weird look. (Another example in a Lackey book, The Fire Rose, where a character must participate in a magic ritual wearing clothes that are untainted by animal products… and so shows up wearing silk. I guess thousands of dead insects don’t count as animals to spirits of light and purity.)
This isn’t a great book, but it certainly is a good book, set in a world as interesting as it is derivative. It brings little new to the genre, but still provides a good deal of entertainment. Good for those looking for that particular combination of a thick book but light reading, the sort that will amuse you without making you have to think too hard. Fluff with substance, and plenty of potential to grow as the series goes on.