Expectations largely met

Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Sandys (1864). Morgan, from Arthurian legend, and Medea, from Greek myth, were both popular with 19th-century artists as the epitome of temptress and sorceress.
Morgan le Fay by Anthony Frederick Sandys (1864).
Morgan, from Arthurian legend, and Medea, from Greek myth, were both popular with 19th-century artists as the epitome of temptress and sorceress.

Trudi Canavan The Magician’s Apprentice
Orbit 2010

I’ve often seen the Trudi Canavan books popping up on the shelves in bookshops and bric-a-brac shops, and, as I have a suspicion of genre fiction that runs in series (it always seems to be a cynical publishing ploy), resolutely avoided them. I finally gave way when two titles literally fell into my hands off the shelves of a charity shop, and opted to first read this, the prequel of the Black Magician trilogy. So, other than knowing it was fantasy, it had no hype to live up to in my mind.

The first thing that struck me is that the author is Australian. That encouraged me, because two other fantasy writers that have impressed me for their world-creation, Garth Nix and Alison Croggon, also happen to be antipodean. But while Nix’s Abhorsen series is set in a marcher country very like the Borders between Scotland and England, and the action in Croggon’s Pellinor books take place on a continent reminiscent of Atlantis, Canavan’s are clearly inspired by the geography of the state of Victoria in Oz: the shape of the coastline and the climate are consistent with a southern hemisphere setting. I found this intriguing, and it promised a different perspective.

And now to The Magician’s Apprentice itself. The young heroine Tessia has an attractive personality, and the reader warms to her stance on a range of matters, from women’s rights to co-operation, from single-mindedness to dedication to her craft of healing. Some of the concepts of magic use here are innovative: magicians draw magical power from willing apprentices or, occasionally, unwilling peasants, but as with batteries there is a limit to how much power is available before it drains away. And I liked the fact that, for readers like me beginning with the prequel, there were indications of the way the history of the social and political institutions would be going in future books.

Expectations for this kind of epic fantasy are largely met and come as no surprise: the vaguely Indo-European medieval cultures, the limited technology available, the ebb and flow of fortunes, the moral and ethical dilemmas that blur the distinctions between Good and Evil, the inevitable (and ultimately helpful) map. But even within the conventions there was enough sheer invention to help create a credible universe that isn’t tediously derivative as much sub-Tolkien writing can be. Canavan’s literary style is also very accomplished and moves the narrative along smoothly, though some may prefer more action and less speech. I was very encouraged to continue with the succeeding volumes in chronological order in the hopes that I would be equally engaged.

Just one thing niggled me, and this is down to publishers. Canavan’s pages are ablaze with descriptions of colourful costumes and character appearances, a gift to any cover illustrator. What then do we have on the front of the British edition? A generic black cape with a shadowed face under a hood. No doubt this is to fit in with the packaging of the trilogy, but it doesn’t give any inkling of what really exists between the covers. As Canavan, from the evidence of her website, is an accomplished artist in her own right, designing and painting key characters, why hasn’t she been called in to illustrate her own covers?

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6 thoughts on “Expectations largely met

  1. I hope your own expectations are largely met too! As I mention above, some might hope for more action and less talk (and maybe less introspective thinking), and this feature carries into the initial triology, which may or may not daunt you!

    I’ll be reviewing those further titles in due course, but be warned! Canavan has warmed to her creation of the world of Kyralia and there is a further trilogy after that, which I may or may not get round to if it’s merely more of the same: http://www.trudicanavan.com/books/

  2. I have also recently read this one, and found myself guzzling it. Definitely not a disappointment after having already read the follow-up trilogy. It is a bit of a ‘spoiler’ for that trilogy, though, as it takes away one of the main surprises.
    I do agree regarding the covers, and have had arguments with publishers and graphic designers on this aspect. They are very much into the fashion of simple designs (which they feel are fine even if only slightly relevant) which have something uniquely identifying that author and that series. They claim marketing research supports this. I am skeptical, and have hitherto resisted the trend in my own books. I like a cover which accurately tells me something about a book or a scene in it.

    1. Glad you’ve managed to stick to your guns over your own covers. Sometimes professional judgements need to be trusted where marketing is concerned (after all, not all creative writers are great artists, eg Tolkien, who was mostly pants at it) but occasionally they, the graphic designers and marketeers, get it wrong.

      Sometimes publishers (like, famously, Bloomsbury with some of the Harry Potter books) hedge their bets by simultaneously publishing a title with different covers to appeal to different tastes and audiences. But you have to be a very successful author to have that luxury afforded you.

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