A well-rounded world

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Trudi Canavan The Novice Orbit 2010

The novice of the title is the young Sonea whom we met in the first volume of this trilogy, The Magicians’ Guild. She has overcome her anxiety about joining the Guild following an exhausting search for her when her burgeoning powers threatened to endanger both herself and the inhabitants of Kyralia’s capital Imardin. Having been reluctantly accepted into the Guild by the magicians she is then subjected to concerted bullying by a cohort of students led by Regin who are persuaded that, as a former inhabitant of the city’s slums, she is fair game for victimisation. But as her magical potential continues to grow a close interest is taken in her by Akkarin, the enigmatic High Lord of the Guild, with consequences that nobody in the Guild could have foreseen; and as the story unfolds the High Lord’s dark secret becomes increasingly obvious to the attentive reader.

A trilogy’s middle novel is potentially difficult in terms of lack of resolution and loose ends. Canavan largely gets round this by having a central theme, namely bullying. Knowing a little about the psychology of bullying (from a partner who is a psychologist) I was distressed on behalf of the fictional heroine. If anything, what happens to Sonea illustrates the weakness of the advice usually given to victims by those in authority. Ignore it? Certainly in this case it doesn’t go away. Tell an adult? The Guild magicians in the University where Sonea is enrolled are mostly dismissive of her accounts, believing she is lying or exaggerating or that it’s just a bit of fun. Fight back? That is almost certainly likely to get a social outcast like Sonea into more trouble.

Of course, a fictional educational institution is not going to have the anti-bullying policies in place that a modern school might have, let alone have an idea of suitable strategies for an individual to employ, so it’s clear that she has to get on with it, on the basis that enduring the treatment meted out to her must only make her stronger. In actual fact, her growing natural ability, combined with her determination to succeed by practising her skills and studying assiduously, is what finally allows her to get the best of her tormentors. It’s not the best of messages to give to readers who might be similarly suffering from bullying, but it makes for a good plot driver, even if it’s one told at length.

We had this neighbour, Audrey, who would try to regale us with details of her day. She would waylay us as we rushed in or out of our house to tell us her news, which almost invariably began with the beginning of her day: “George woke up at 5.30 this morning, no I tell a lie, it was a quarter to six because that was when he heard next door’s alarm going, and he …” And so it would go on until we got to the nub of her complaint or gossip or until we conjured up an urgent appointment with the dentist, an imminent meeting or a train to catch.

At times The Novice is like this. We get to hear what happens in real time to Sonea, or Rothen her Guardian, or Second Ambassador Dannyl, from the moment they wake up, or leave a classroom, or walk into a building, along with their constant inner chatterbox: what if this, or what happens when, or why must someone do such-and-such, and then what do I do after, and what do I think about that? It would certainly be pandering to stereotypes to suggest that the habit of constantly describing and analysing and judging others peoples’ actions and motives could be a gender-related habit, and as a male I wouldn’t dare suggest it; but though continuous internal dialogue is one that any reflective person would engage in, in The Novice it can and does get a little tedious at times, much as in the preceding novel.

Equally wearing are the little verbal tics that the author indulges in: when a character dismisses a private thought they shrug; when the High Lord is faintly amused a corner of his mouth turns up; when anybody is appraising anybody else their eyes narrow. There is consequently a lot of eye-narrowing throughout the trilogy.

I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked this novel; far from it. I enjoyed it for a variety of reasons, not least because the storyline drew me along. Told from a limited number of points of view the character-building encourages you to care about these protagonists. Add to that an increasing sense of sexual tension between two of the characters, a clear concept of how magic works in this fantasy world, and a strong sense of geographical place (I’ve noted before that Kyralia bears a superficial resemblance to the Australian state of Victoria, with Canavan’s Magicians’ Guild occupying a site corresponding to Canavan’s own place of residence in the Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully) and you get a well rounded world in which to enjoyably immerse yourself for prolonged periods of time, as I certainly did.

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