Emily Gee’s The Sentinel Mage was prominently featured on our list of anticipated novels for January. It is the first volume in her new The Cursed Kingdoms Trilogy.
An ancient curse
In Girond, a small town in the Eastern-most part of The Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse turns everyone into a killer. Only an eight-year-old boy, Jaumé, escapes the curse, traveling westward on foot. On the other side of the continent, a group of mages confront the King of Osgaard to tell him that only his son, Prince Harkeld, can save The Seven Kingdoms from the curse before it consumes every human being. In his greed, the King sees an opportunity to enrich his kingdom and won’t allow the mages to take his son.
Prince Harkeld escapes with the group of mages, his father’s soldiers hot on their trail. While the Prince struggles to come to terms with the betrayal of his father and kingdom, and the revelations made about him, a young mage, Innis, is forced to do the forbidden and use her shapeshifting gifts to become a man to protect Prince Harkeld from harm.
Story of clichés
From the slowly festering curse to the distant prospect of war, and from the trying journey through a deadly desert to the dangerous assassins chasing the prince and the mages along the way, a substantial part of this story has previously appeared in other works of fantasy. In that regard, The Sentinel Mage reminds me of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Eragon, but most of his story is unoriginal or even borders plagarism. Unlike Paolini, however, Gee proves she has an impressive talent for writing fantasy and though she uses a vast amount of fantasy clichés, she puts them together in such a way that the story is still original and enjoyable. On the other hand, I finished the story with the impression that it could have been something more, as if not all of its potential had been realized.
First and foremost, Gee’s talent for writing manifests itself in her characters—the kind princess who is married to a bully general; the honorable prince struggling with his hate for these mages who keep saving his life; and the eight year-old orphan boy, striving to survive even when it means stealing food to sustain himself. All of these characters are well-written and easily believable. While the subtle romance between the young shapeshifter Innis and Prince Harkeld is predictable, this love is never consummated between the two reluctant characters.
Beyond writing believable characters, Gee shows her talent with the pacing of The Sentinel Mage. This isn’t a roller-coaster ride, nor is it a slow book. In fact, it is perfectly paced, with the right mix of character development, world building, apprehension and suspense, making it a page-turner that you just can’t put down, but doesn’t leave you uncomfortably panting for breath at the end.
Gee isn’t afraid to write a scene from a multitude of viewpoints. Though it’s something that hardly ever works in favor of a story, she pulls it off in a way that enhances the plot while improving the overall pacing of the book. The way she artfully sets up storylines and points of view that are only meagerly explored and mostly left for use in future installments turns this into a promising epic fantasy story.
The Sentinel Mage is by no means perfect. The magic system in this book feels quite random. Mages have a selection of abilities that include shapeshifting, creating fire and healing. However, there does not seem to be any connection between these abilities, nor is the lack of connection explored in the story. While this may seem cheap, the way Gee has shaped these gifts is quite good. With the exception of creating fire, each is realistically fleshed out with eye for detail. The chapters involving Innis shapeshifting into the character of Justen, the prince’s guard, are well-written and plausible. The ability to heal is described in ways that border on medical science.
Though the use of these abilities is described in a plausible way, Gee did miss a big opportunity for character development here. Throughout the book, I kept expecting Prince Harkeld to discover the ploy behind his guard, but he never did. In fact, he never had so much as a suspicion of what was going on. Not only did this feel unrealistic, having the characters handle internal strife caused by discovery or the threat of discovery would have significantly deepened the story. Perhaps it is this lack of exploration of deeper character conflicts that gave the book its cliché feeling.
Why should you read this book?
Though the story of The Sentinel Mage doesn’t seem original at first, the writing is exceptional to the point that it makes up for any lingering clichés. This touching and epic story is both engaging and unpredictable and will give you quite a few hours of enjoyment. If you enjoy an old-fashioned, adventurous fantasy novel with all the elements that made the fantasy genre what it is today, this is the story for you.
Stephan received a review copy of this book courtesy of Solaris.