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by Jane Routley
I bet new authors hate being called promising. "Promising" means "I can't really recommend the book, so I'll praise the author instead." I'm afraid that Jane Routley is very promising; her first novel Mage Heart is the sort of story I generally adore, and it comes close to being a good read. Frustratingly, the story grinds to a halt in the middle and never really recovers.
Dion is an extraordinarily powerful young female mage in a land where women aren't supposed to be able to perform magic. The Duke of Gallia hires her to protect his favorite mistress, an elegant courtesan who wields a tremendous amount of social influence despite being named Kitten Avignon. Kitten is being stalked by her ex-lover Norval, a powerful necromancer who doesn't deal well with rejection. (Gallia is undergoing a Renaissance, but apparently no one has yet invented the restraining order.) Dion, who has had a very conservative upbringing in the dour neighboring country of Moria, is considerably more upset about associating with women of ill repute than she is about dealing with an evil necromancer, the vicious intrigues of the Duke's court, persecution by religious zealots, or a leering demon who keeps popping up in dreams and mirrors to proposition her.
The characterization is excellent; even the minor stock characters feel as if they have lives beyond their role in the novel. (The only exception is Norval. In his brief appearances, he's the sort of cardboard gloating sadist that is the fantasy genre's equivalent to the sneering Colombian druglord in action movies. I half-expected Bruce Willis to burst through a wall, guns blazing, and perforate him with full-auto fire and bad one-liners.) Kitten in particular is refined but earthy, gracious and educated, with a tragic and mysterious past; she's rather like a refugee from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, in search of a realm where the rulers' mistresses have a higher life expectancy. Dion's transformation from utter prude to slightly less of a prude is neither forced nor abrupt, and her observations about characters that enter her narrative generally reveal as much about Dion as they do about the subjects of her comments.
Unfortunately, the plotting and pacing are uneven. After a strong start, the plot bogs down in the romance subplot: Girl meets Boy; Girl spurns Boy; Girl swoons after Boy; lather, rinse, repeat. In general, I adore romantic fantasy, but I can only take so many chapters of repetitive virginal angst before I throw the book at a wall. Dion is gratingly passive, only reacting to situations as they arise. That's not out of character in an ingenue, but it's a bad sign when even the other characters are telling the protagonist to do something already.
I think that Jane Routley will write a book that I'll thoroughly enjoy, but Mage Heart wasn't it. I look forward to her next novel, but I'll wait for the paperback.
-- Christina Schulman.
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