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Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Spirit Lens" by Carol Berg (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order "The Spirit Lens" HERE
Official Carol Berg Website

INTRODUCTION: I have browsed several of Ms. Berg' novels before and I actually started on Flesh and Spirit at some point and I plan to finish it sooner rather than later, but they never had that "read me now" quality to get into them seriously when I have a "reading pile" of several hundred books leaving aside the new ones that are released all the time.

The main reason for the above was that while the writing style was intriguing, the subjects of all the books I browsed by the author were of moderate interest at best for me. However "The Spirit Lens" had a very intriguing blurb, so I decided to include it in my 2010 Anticipated List ; out of 90+ books, it was the only one from an established author I have not read before.

I bought the book on its release day in early January and after several false starts, when I kept putting The Spirit Lens down and reading something else though advancing a little bit each time, I started truly getting into the novel at about the 150th page and from then on it was a non-stop ride to a superb ending that left my appetite whetted for the next installment.

The Spirit Lens stands at about 450 pages divided in 34 chronological chapters headed by their date and it ends with an epilogue. The novel is a first person narration by early 30's Portier de Savin-Duplais, a failed magician from an outside line of a powerful noble family, so distant cousin to the current king Philippe de Savin-Jurnia of Sabria. Student at the famous countryside Collegia Magica of Seravain, Portier has been disabused of any hopes for real magical ability by age 16, but through the intercession of his mentor, family friend and lead magician of the Camarilla Magica, Kajetan, Portier stayed on as archivist for some 16 years now until he is secretly summoned to investigate an assassination attempt against the king that may involve magicians, powerful Court members and even the estranged and seemingly unworldly Queen Eugenie herself.

Partly a mystery, partly an exploration of a somewhat familiar but also quite different society on the verge of an age of reason, partly the beginning of an epic as far as the big picture goes, The Spirit Lens is packed with events and it has many twists and turns, of which some are quite unpredictable and made me appreciate it quite a lot at the end.

The style takes a while to get adjusted to since the novel starts on a very light note despite its grim underlying events, Portier being a very self-deprecating and wry narrator, while his two companions in the investigation, Chevalier Ilario and sorcerer Dante start as the overdone cliches of "fop" and "brilliant but moody outsider sorcerer".

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Sabria is a pseudo-Renaissance kingdom with mostly French/Italian naming conventions that is poised to enter an "Age of Reason" under the leadership of King Philippe. Wracked by the terrible "Blood Wars" some hundred years ago, the nobility and magicians of Sabria formed a compact in which all study and use of magic comes under the aegis of the Camarilla Magica under strict rules and regulations. As magical ability seems to be diminishing among the lines of Sabria' sorcerers, many people including the king himself consider it no more than a stage trick at best or con game at worst and Philippe is promoting the study of science and the advancement of technology.

However not all is rosy since Philippe though now standing on the throne for a good number of years is an "outsider king", being only a distant heir of the previous king who died childless; his high-nobility wife Queen Eugenie was the bride of the former king too, with Philippe marrying her to consolidate his fragile hold on power. Queen Eugenie, while somewhat otherworldly - some saying she "became unbalanced" when her and Philippe's only son died - is a strong believer in magic and has two powerful sorcerers as her own Camarilla.

When an assassination was attempted against Philippe involving the worst kind of "blood magic" and with the scant evidence pointing to the Queen's court, if not the Queen herself, Philippe put his most trusted councilor, right hand man and childhood friend that he raised to the highest estates from a commoner birth, Michel de Vernase, Conte Ruggiere to investigate. However after a promising beginning, Michel has disappeared, Philippe is starting to fear the worst about his friend and time may be running out since soon there will be a symbolic anniversary where the mysterious forces of the "dark" may attack again and finish the job this time.

Desperate and not knowing whom else to trust, the king summons Portier in secret to investigate and prevent the feared next attack, though he saddles him with Ilario, the half-brother of Queen Eugenie and reputed half-wit and fop at the court as a representative of the "Queen's party", while for magical help Portier goes to Dante, the only known "outsider" sorcerer who got licensed by the Camarilla as the law requires but then retired to the countryside.

And from here the fun starts and we follow Portier trying to get a grip on events, manage his two companions as well as keeping a low profile as a secretary to one or the other.

There were several reasons that I kept reading even if it took me a while to get used with the style. The naming conventions worked extremely well for me and while seemingly a minor point, many recent fantasies I tried and were ok but not gripping to start with, lost me badly on that and off they went to a "fast read and forget" or an outright drop.

While the world of Spirit Lens is only slowly unfolding, I never lost the suspension of disbelief necessary to immerse in it. Whenever magicians are involved and especially in the context of a "cultural fight" for supremacy between magic and science/reason, I am always asking why the magicians are not in charge since as all human history teaches any "competitive advantage" (big warriors, literate priesthood, divine right...) is leveraged into domination and entrenched in societal structures and anyone who can demonstrably do magic automatically has such an advantage. Various books answer this in various ways, some more credible for me, some less, but here the whole setup with the Camarilla and the sorcerers slowly losing magical power as a class fits very well with my worldview.

After I got into the style of the novel and its happenings started hooking me, its main attraction were the twists and turns and the characters about whom slowly we start having quite different impressions than at the start. Revelations from the past coupled to traits that come at fore only after a while mean that what we believe at the beginning will be quite changed by the end. This unpredictability raised Spirit Lens most in my estimation since in so many genre books the characters are marked: "the destined one, the sidekick, the love interest, the villain, the noble but doomed one", while here there is much more subtlety and even at the end when we seemingly know a lot more, there is a lot of uncertainty at least with regard to the big picture.

And of course there is a lot of action, daring escapes, plots and counter plots so The Spirit Lens does not lag at all once it gets going, while its main thread is wrapped up so there is completion before the next installment. Highly recommended and a solid A, I will give it a re-read at some point later and may even raise my estimation of it now that I am comfortable with its style.


Blue Gargantua said...

I really enjoyed this book as well, but had some serious problems with the ending.

Liviu said...

I actually liked the ending because it turned some things on its head a bit and promised a great sequel; I like a lot surprises in a book and this one had some good ones

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