Mage’s Blood 

by David Hair

Reviewed by Eileen Wiedbrauk

The first in a planned quartet, Mage’s Blood is the almost 700-page opening novel of David Hair’s Moontide Quartet. It is set in a fantasy world similar to ours during the Crusades, with one large difference: magi. Travel between the two continents of Urte is only possible by magi-driven windship, except for a stretch of time every twelve years, when the magi-made Leviathan Bridge rises out of the sea and provides a land crossing—one the northern continent has used to move armies on two prior Crusades, wreaking destruction on the city of Hebusalim. The novel follows multiple characters during the year proceeding Moontide (the time when the bridge can rise) and their fighting and scheming to change the world to their benefit.
With a whole host of point-of-view characters—about a dozen in all, nearly half of whom I’d consider “main characters,” they hit on all the good tropes: boy-wizard, female assassin-warrior, marriage of convenience, crossed lover, etc.—few of them can be considered “heroes” and fewer still can be considered “good,” or at the very least, “well intentioned.” As readers, we’ve been conditioned to expect to be introduced to the hero of the story early on, or at least to a disreputable-but-redeemable character. Mage's Blood takes the opposite tack. In the first 45 pages, we meet only characters who are in the habit of killing children, whether for profit or sustenance. We are tricked into thinking Gurvon Gyle might be a character we can root for—sure he runs the nastiest ring of assassins and spies on the continent and he’s advocating for the death of an entire royal family, children and all, but by comparison to the corrupt and possibly insane Emperor and Imperial Mother, Gurvon doesn’t seem half-bad—it’s a poor assumption. Throughout the novel, characters are constantly shifting in the reader’s mind from likable to hideous, from creepy to benevolent, from romantic to fanatic. Overall, it makes for a striking storytelling choice, one that doesn’t let us rest easily on the notion of “our hero.” Instead, the narrative points steadily toward the conclusion that there are no devils or angels, there are only men.
While many second-world fantasy novels draw vaguely from European geography and history, Mage's Blood has a richness to it that comes so close to the actual history and customs of Europe and the Near East as to make me periodically stop and wonder whether I was remembering my history wrong or I had just tripped over one of the fantasy world’s small, intentional tweaks. In this respect, it’s not dissimilar from Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. But where Kushiel’s Legacy blended sex, violence, and political intrigue, Mage's Blood is more stink, violence, and intrigue. Presenting a continually malodorous, if historically accurate, portrayal of life and travel before indoor plumbing. Never does the author pass up an opportunity to remind the reader that in such a world, any place where the public masses is a place of public urination en masse.
Fans of Game of Thrones will delight in the existence of this different-yet-similar fantasy series. However, I must admit that I couldn’t get far into that series before I was shutout by the narrative’s pervasive sense of hopelessness, which others might simply call gritty realism. Yet I find when I learn to dread what will happen next to my favorite characters, I learn to stop picking up the novel. I fear Mage's Blood, in its final hundred pages, taught me the same lesson. It’s a well written debut that will no doubt have its share of fans, but I won’t be picking up the rest of the series.