Servant Mage

by Kate Elliott

Cover image

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-76904-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 165

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Servant Mage is a (so far at least) standalone fantasy novella.

Fellian is a servant mage, which means that she makes Lamps for the customers of the inn, cleans the privies, and watches her effective owners find ways to put her deeper into indentured servitude. That's the only life permitted by the August Protector to those found to carry the taint of magical talent, caused by (it is said) demons who have bound themselves to their souls. Fellian's effective resistance is limited to giving covert reading lessons. Or was, before she is hired by a handsome man who needs a Lamplighter. A man who has been looking for her specifically, is a magical Adept, and looks suspiciously like a soldier for the despised and overthrown monarchists.

A difficulty with writing a story that reverses cliches is that you have to establish the cliches in order to reverse them, which runs the risk that a lot of the story may feel cliched. I fear some of that happened here.

Magic, in this world, is divided into elemental spheres, each of which has been restricted to limited and practical tasks by the Liberationists. The new regime searches the population for the mage-gifted and forces them into public service for the good of all (or at least that's how they describe it), with as little education as possible. Fellian was taught to light Lamps, but what she has is fire magic, and she's worked out some additional techniques on her own. The Adept is air, and one of the soldiers with him is earth. If you're guessing that two more elements turn up shortly and something important happens if you get all five of them together, you're perhaps sensing a bit of unoriginality in the magic system.

That's not the cliche that's the primary target of this story, though. The current rulers of this country, led by the austere August Protector, are dictatorial anti-monarchists who are happy to force mages into indenture and deny people schooling. Fellian has indeed fallen in with the monarchists, who unsurprisingly are attempting to reverse the revolution. They, unlike the Liberationists, respect mages and are willing to train them, and they would like to recruit Fellian.

I won't spoil the details of where Elliott is going with the plot, but it does eventually go somewhere refreshingly different. The path to get there, though, is familiar from any number of fantasy epics that start with a slave with special powers. Servant Mage is more aware of this than most, and Fellian is sharp-tongued and suspicious rather than innocent and trainable, but there are a lot of familiar character tropes and generic fantasy politics.

This is the second story (along with the Spiritwalker trilogy) of Elliott's I've read that uses the French Revolution as a political model but fails to provide satisfying political depth. This one is a novella and can therefore be forgiven for not having the time to dive into revolutionary politics, but I wish Elliott would do more with this idea. Here, the anti-monarchists are straight-up villains, and while that's partly setup for more nuance than you might be expecting, it still felt like a waste of the setting. I want the book that tackles the hard social problem of reconciling the chaos and hopefulness of political revolution with magical powers that can be dangerous and oppressive without the structure of tradition. It feels like Elliott keeps edging towards that book but hasn't found the right hook to write it.

Instead, we get a solid main character in Fellian, a bunch of supporting characters who mostly register as "okay," some magical set pieces that have all the right elements and yet didn't grab my sense of wonder, and a story that seemed heavily signposted. The conclusion was the best part of the story, but by the time we got there it wasn't as much of a surprise as I wanted it to be. I had this feeling with the Spiritwalker series as well: the pieces making up the story are of good quality, and Elliott's writing is solid, but the narrative magic never quite coheres for me. It's the sort of novella where I finished reading, went "huh," and then was excited to start a new book.

I have no idea if there are plans for more stories in this universe, but Servant Mage felt like a prelude to a longer series. If that series does materialize, there are some signs that it could be more satisfying. At the end of the story, Fellian is finally in a place to do something original and different, and I am mildly curious what she might do. Maybe enough to read the next book, if one turns up.

Mostly, though, I'm waiting for the sequel to Unconquerable Sun. Next April!

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-11-23

Last modified and spun 2022-11-24