In a recent interview at Before We Go Blog, Ken Liu mentions Kate Elliott as one of the very best fantasy writers of today and Servant Mage, this gem of a short novel, reveals Elliott as a master story-teller. Servant Mage tells the story of a young woman raised in servitude and taught to despise and suppress her greatest strengths, who learns to overcome the internalized negative beliefs and become who she truly is.
Her name is Fellian, and there is never much doubt about her irrepressible nature, her refusal to curb her tongue or to bow to those described as her betters. Born into a medieval-like world torn by conflict between the ruling Liberationists and the defeated Monarchists, Fellian is ill at ease with both sides. Her parents were farmers, killed for their beliefs, not ardent advocates of these two ruling classes. She clings to their memory and where she came from despite depending so heavily for survival, first, on the servant role imposed by the Liberationists, and, later, on her rescue from that limited life of servitude by the Monarchist mages she travels with for most of the novel.
We quickly learn that Fellian has a special power. Born with a fire wraith in her bones, she can shape lamps and lights of various kinds. Her Liberationist masters taught her that such wraiths were demons that had to be rigidly controlled, and they have made her a lowly servant working at an inn. She’s learned never to expect any more of her life.
But one day she is visited by a stranger who claims to have special authorization to take her on a journey that will result in her freedom from servitude. She accepts the offer and soon finds herself at the center of a group of mages of the Monarchist faction. But she takes nothing at face value and bombards them with what they regard as impertinent questions to get at the truth. First she sees them take off the disguises of clothing they’ve used to fool the guards at the inn where Fellian is a servant. Then she learns the specific power these other mages have. One is a water adept, one an air mage, another was born with an earth wraith in her bones, and their leader is a master of aether. Unmasking is the unifying theme of the story – of physical disguises, of false ideologies, of the truth of personal worth.
Servant Mage tosses out many of the typical tropes of fantasy novels. Yes, there is a troop of mages on a mission to save a special infant, but Fellian ultimately refuses their advances of many kinds – romantic involvement, a permanent place among the nobles of one faction, a fight to victory over a monstrous enemy. She signs on for a reward, a travel pass and a chance to get back to her homeland, and she sticks to that resolve. She is strong-minded and unafraid to experiment. She speaks boldly, questions everything and has an unquenchable spirit.
The deepest part of her inner evolution as a character is her overcoming the beliefs drilled into her by Liberationist teachers in the “asylum” where she spent her teen years. They raised her to believe that her greatest strengths are dangerous – the result of demons invading her body and that her best fate was to be an indentured servant. She has to unlearn all that she has been taught so that she can see herself and her powers in a new light, as strengths that can be used for good or perverted by unjust masters. It is up to her how to use them, and that speaks to me and the need to counter negative beliefs about self-worth.
Some have complained that there is too little character development allowed in the confines of this short novel, but I don’t see it that way. Of course, we get a well-rounded picture of Fellian, but we also see more deeply into the half dozen people she travels with. The arc of each is not so much character development in the usual sense. It is rather a gradual unveiling of who they really are. Each of them presents a disguised persona to Fellian at first, designed simply to lure her away from her servitude.
Bit by bit, though, she learns more about each one. It is her deep suspicion about her new companions and their motives that lead her to pummel them with questions, as she tries to uncover the secrets of who they are. She not only forces them to reveal more about themselves but also to teach her the truth about the wraiths and demons of this world, about the history of the clash between Liberationists and Monarchists, about the dragon-born with special powers and about her own nature. They are all tested in terrible ordeals as they confront the true demons that block their passage to their goal. By the end, their characters are fully revealed and well-rounded.
After building a fairly complex world, the shortness of Servant Mage does leave me wanting to know more about Fellian and the outcome of the struggle she takes part in. I have no idea if this is the first novel in a series, but I do hope it is. It’s a marvelous adventure, brilliantly written, with fast-paced action and an unforgettable central character. More, please!
My thanks to ToDotCom and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which I could base this review , with solely my own opinions.