Thursday, July 26, 2018

Birthday Review: A Young Man Without Magic, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

A Young Man Without Magic, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Tor, 2009)

a review by Rich Horton

Today is Lawrence Watt Evans' 64th birthday, so it seems appropriate to repost this review of a novel I really enjoyed a few years ago. Alas, the series this book started was canceled after the second volume.

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!)

(*Actually, I believe seven novels were originally planned, but the publisher dropped the series after the second book.)

(cover by Scott Fischer)
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.

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