Monday, 19 July 2010

The Ambassador’s Mission (Trudi Canvan)

The Ambassador’s Mission (The Traitor Spy, Book 1)
-Trudi Canvan

Regular readers of my reviews will remember that a few years ago I reviewed The Magician’s Apprentice, which served as a prequel to The Black Magician Trilogy. I wasn't too impressed because the prequel seemed like a plagiarised version of the trilogy, one that showed irritating glimpses of a better story, waiting to be told. I therefore didn’t hold up high hopes when I picked up The Ambassador’s Mission and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the story is a vast improvement. It does not hold up well on its own – knowledge of the earlier four books is definitely required – but it very definitely expands the world the author created. It is not, however, without its problems.

It is roughly twenty years after The High Lord, when Sonea and Akkarin saved Kyralia from destruction by Sachakan renegades. Their son Lorkin – Akkarin was killed during the final battle – is now a young man, searching for his own way in the world. Sonea herself is one of the two Black Magicians in the Guild, which is watching nervously for further attacks from the country’s powerful neighbour. When Dannyl - the homosexual Ambassador – accepts the position of Ambassador to Sachaka, Lorkin insists on joining him over his mother’s objections. If that wasn't enough trouble, there are growing class divisions within the Guild itself and mysterious rogue magicians roaming the city streets, as well as a new drug that somehow resists magical healing.

Everything falls apart rapidly as Lorkin is kidnapped by the Traitors – a mysterious group of renegades operating within Sachaka – and some of the foreign magicians within the city are revealed to be plotting its downfall. The story picks up speed rapidly towards a final confrontation, yet so much is left unrevealed…not entirely surprising, when there are three books in the series.

I enjoyed reading the story, but the world-building did have some problems. It was an important plot point of the first three books that Black Magic – draining magical energy from a willing or unwilling donor – is not only forbidden, but almost unknown in Kyralia, even through it leaves their magicians dependent on their natural power and renders them vulnerable to others with fewer scruples. The Guild had hundreds of magicians, yet a tiny number of enemy magicians were able to wreck the city in the first trilogy. Now…they still have only two Black Magicians, while their most likely enemy has hundreds! It makes very little sense. The Guild seems to be more complacent than Chamberlain, with far less reason. There’s also the odd point that everyone takes it for granted that Black Magic has to be taught, yet that raises the obvious question of how it was discovered in the first place? If knowing that something is possible is half the battle, then why not have an independent discovery elsewhere?

A second issue – and one that Lorkin should have called the Traitors on – is that of sexual equality. Sachaka is basically rather like Afghanistan; women are kept veiled and out of sight, forbidden even to mingle with other women. The Traitors, a female-dominated group, treat their men better, but there’s no real equality. It’s rather like saying that Saudi Arabia treats women better than Afghanistan and therefore Saudi is a superior country. It makes very little difference from an objective point of view. Holding women in bondage (however expressed and justified) is no different from holding men in bondage. The Traitors are better than those they fight. They are not angels.

The world is strewn with the remains of older – long forgotten – magic. Some of these are fascinating hints of older secrets, others defy explanation. I, for one, would love to see this explored more, but I don’t know if the author will go that route.

Overall, a good read – once.

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