“Mage’s Blood” David Hair

I’ve read a lot of fiction of varying qualities, and generally so long as it’s fun or interesting in some way I’ll overlook a lot of flaws. Sadly sometimes a work has a flaw that keeps popping up in your face and waving its arms around, shouting “Hey, remember me? Don’t you find me annoying? Yoooooohooooo! Over here!”. Mage’s Blood had one of those, and despite feeling that there was something there to appreciate in the story I couldn’t get past the clunky world building.

Mage’s Blood is technically a secondary world fantasy – set in a world that’s not our own, rather than our own world with some fantastical element added. Technically. But it’s full of things like these:

“Have you seen Ramon?”
“Nope. I imagine the Silacian sneak-thief is probably running his village familioso by now.”

I guess Silacian == Sicilian where the mafia come from, get it, get it, get it?? We are hit over the head with this several times, and Ramon even sprinkles Italian words & phrases through his speech … Or how about this:

The Rimoni men were clad in white shirts and black leggings; their hands rested on their knife hilts. The women, wrapped in shawls, were scowling in suspicion. […] the head of the gypsies, Mercellus di Regia,[…]

Well, what do you know, the Rimoni are gypsies, amazing what you can do with a few vowel shifts and a great big helping of stereotypes, isn’t it? The Rimoni also do double duty as the Romans – having had a large empire around a thousand years ago in this world’s past. And so the Rimoni also scatter Italian through their speech.

We’re also at the time of some great wars being fought at intervals between two continents – from the perspective of the cultures mentioned above (plus others on that continent) these are the … wait for it … Crusades. And how about the cultures on the other continent I hear you ask? Would it surprise you to find out that the people there look Arabic or Indian? And one group have a monotheistic religion, greet each other with the phrase “Sal’Ahm” and have a concept of holy war called “shihad” which they have declared against the crusaders – we’ve found our Muslims, I think. And another group wear sarees, have many gods (including Gann, sometimes referred to as Gann-Elephant in case we don’t figure out it’s Ganesha), and the author even says thanks in the acknowledgements to someone for her help with Bengali wedding rituals – I guess these are Bengali Hindus then!

Some stuff was original, but there was enough of this clumsy “oh if I just change the letters a bit no-one will notice” world building, and it was reiterated often enough, to yank me back out of the story over and over again. I wish he’d taken the time to come up with some less obvious equivalences and had the setting feel less like he’d picked a bunch of stereotyped ingredients from our world and mixed them in with his new stuff.

And it’s a shame, to be honest. There were things about the plot and characters that I did enjoy. For instance there’s a plot line with a young woman in an arranged marriage to an immortal mage – she was promised to someone else, but the mage offered unbelievable riches to her family. And her young lover follows to rescue her, and you just know it’s all going to end in tragedy of an almost Shakespearean sort especially as you see (and Hair makes you believe in) the growing affection between her and her husband. And I almost want to know what happens next, but I can’t see myself ever reading the rest of this planned quartet of books.

I’d assumed it was a debut novel, and perhaps one that should’ve been trunked and another one written using the lessons learnt writing this one. But I looked him up, and it seems this is not his first published work – he has a couple of series of YA fantasy novels set in our world. Which makes sense given what I think worked and what I think didn’t work about the book – the secondary world setting is one of the things he hasn’t done before. And sadly the stuff that worked just couldn’t keep me engrossed enough to ignore the clunkyness.