I liked it, but didn’t love it.
Trudi Canavan‘s first novel is the standard ‘kid in poverty discovers they have a talent (magic) and ends up in a new world being trained to master that skill’. That has to be a genre in its own right by now. It’s a perfectly reasonable storyline but I may have read too many books lately that begin this way. The main character is a young lady born in poverty (one of the ‘dwells’ – someone living outside the walled city proper in the slums. Her family have clawed their way out of utter poverty into the outer ring of the city, but a regular purge of the poor sees them kicked out again. When confronted by a wall of magicians enforcing the king’s law, Sonea discovers her magical potential and lobs a rock into one of their heads.
So begins a chase around the city, hiding out with the Thieves, being given up by thieves, being captured by magicians, some magic training, a bit of light kidnapping, some lying and finally full Stockholm’s kicks in.
It’s an easy read, but the main character Sonea is bizarrely disempowered throughout. She’s a victim of society (poor) and a direct victim of a cruel system of purges (enforced by the magicians?!) which push her family back into the ghetto. Fleeing, she trades her future value as a possible magician to Faren, one of the Thieves and lives under his protection and that of her childhood friend. In fact she’s completely dependent on them as she becomes a danger to herself and has to be ferried around the city one step ahead of the magicians. She’s then sold out to the magicians. Again, she’s dependent on one of them for her present and future but is offered a somewhat ambiguous deal by A Bad Magician, which only makes sense once her childhood pal has been imprisoned in the incredibly well hidden place underneath the Magicians Guild that everyone knows is there.
In fairness to the magicians, they’re torn between needing to teach Sonea how to control her powers and the sheer awkwardness of them accidentally killing a kid who they thought tossed the rock at their mate. That explains some of their behaviour, but it doesn’t help to explain what the point of magic in this world is. We get brief demonstrations of magic radar, a bit of levitation and telepathy and their force field. There’s really nothing about how that fits into the larger political context, other than there is no war, because all the magicians are taught at the same school. Basically it’s a boarding school for future Tory backbenchers and rest of the one percenters.
I hope Sonea gets some power in the rest of the series, because right now I just feel bad for her. It may be that the scope of the story will expand along with her magical abilities – we’ve had the barest hints of Black Magician Badassery which presumably pushes the trilogy forwards, so I’ve got hope for the series.