by Stephen Aryan
Book 1 of the Age of Dread
4 / 5 stars
I previously read Stephen Aryan’s Age of Darkness trilogy, and was pleasantly surprised when the adventure seemed to improve with each book. Now Mageborn—book one in the Age of Dread—returns to the same world, set a decade after the events of Battlemage. In Battlemage (without spoiling too much), a war engulfs the entire continent, at the forefront featuring battles fought between mages that could otherwise reap men like wheat. These titanic struggles not only set the mood for the initial series, but also help set the tone for this followup. As with anything that allows humans to summon flames, unmake stone, or transform sheep into waffle-cones—magic is misunderstood by the masses. And—as is common with anything lacking of basic understanding on the whole—this inspires fear. The events of the Battlemage War soured folk so much so that magic, once respected and revered, has become a curse, something to be hated or feared, something that some in the world have set out to eradicate once and for all.
So begins the Age of Dread.
While it seems that no prior knowledge of Aryan’s books are required to begin this new series, several of the POV characters reprise their roles from the previous trilogy, lending the story some familiar faces to play alongside the fresh ones.
These fresh faces are led by Wren, Danoph and Tianne: three students of the recently reformed Red Tower—a school that teaches both children and adults to control their magic lest it harm them or others around them. The other pair—Akosh and Habreel—represent a faction fiercely determined to eradicate magic once and for all, for the good of the world itself. For those of you that have read any of the Age of Darkness, among the returning POVs are Tammy, Munroe and Choss. These help fill in a lot of the gaps between the two factions, if only in brief.
I loved the events portrayed in the Age of Darkness trilogy, especially as the series progressed. In the same vein as this, Mageborn feels very much like the set up to an excellent series. But therein lies the problem. It feels like a set-up. An excellent series is more than a sum of its parts, with each individual book a complete tale in and of itself. When I got to the end of Mageborn, it felt… somewhat lacking. It’s not a bad book—ye gods, no—it just feels… incomplete. As the first book in a series it’s often difficult to tell, but I would say that Mageborn could very easily be the start of an excellent series. It’s just as an individual tale that it falls short. Though easily the shortest of Aryan’s books—which, at 392 pages, is by no means “short”—Mageborn has a nice intro and a nice wrap-up. It has a nice meaty center to it. It is quite and enjoyable ride. It’s just… when the book ended I kept flipping pages because not all the POV characters received a proper fulfillment. A few character-arcs were left hanging, feeling incomplete or setting up to be resolved in the next installment. The trouble with this is what I expressed earlier. An excellent series is more than just the sum of its parts. To be perfectly enjoyable, each part should tell its own, complete story. Mageborn, while good, fails to do this. Even after the book ended, the… shall we say “sub-story” remained unfinished. While I realize that there should be elements that remain unfinished if one is to set up for a potential sequel, this was more than that. It felt as if not all the arcs came to fruition, not all threads were tied. I guess we’ll see how they’re captured in the second. While by no means a deal-breaker, this knocks off a star in my book.
While I hesitate to label Mageborn as grimdark, it shares a lot more commonality with the genre than what I would call more “classic” fantasy. Saying nothing about the ending itself, the world is rather less of a ‘good vs. evil’ and more of a realistic driven ‘shades of grey’. In addition, the mood seems darker and more tense, with themes of hope and gloom and desperation ruling rather than the old ‘jolly adventure’. If you usually go for something that’s a ‘good vs. evil’ adventure, maybe skip Mageborn. If you’re like me and enjoy something that is deliciously dark, slightly dark, or even simply more realistic, then maybe give it a try.
While not the perfection that I felt Chaosmage had achieved, Mageborn is a strong entry into a new series set in a vivid and already well-defined fantasy world that still has so much unused potential. While I felt that the summary was a bit lacking, a bit disappointing, Mageborn shows that Stephen Aryan is more than just a one-hit-wonder, and can still deliver now that his initial story has been resolved. I look forward to more, and greater things from him.
And if the man himself happens to read this, just know that an ARC of Book 2 may do wonders for my continued love of his world. Just sayin’. If not, a map would certainly be appreciated. I’m getting a headache linking all the places together. BOTH, THOUGH… both would be above and beyond. Something to be truly envied.
You know, please?