The Sentinel Mage by Emily Gee
The Cursed Kingdoms Trilogy #1
Solaris, January 2011
ISBN-10: 1907519491/ISBN-13: 978-1907519499
Review by Kathryn A. Ryan
“In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage's blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head - and assassins at his heels.
Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld's side as his armsman, protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing between him and death.”
Written by established author Emily Gee, The Sentinel Mage is the start of a new trilogy. Set in the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, we follow the lives of a variety of characters as a terrible curse begins to awaken. Innis arrives at the castle of Harkeld's father as part of a group of mages, their goal to take the prince as he is the only person able to stop the spreading evil, but the king has his own priorities. Narrowly escaping the castle, the prince and the mages become wanted and find themselves running not only to save their lives, but also the Seven Kingdoms. On their way to the first anchor stone needed to combat the curse, the group face highly-trained assassins, the king's soldiers, the undead, but also their own internal conflicts.
The story is told to us through a moderate number of characters. The larger chapters revolve around Innis, Prince Harkeld and Justen, the prince's armsman, who is one of the shapeshifting mages in disguise. Harkeld's sister, Princess Brigitta or Britta as she is known by those close to her, is used to tell us a little about the politics of the land whilst Jaumé, a small boy, is our link to those directly affected by the spreading curse. These four main points of view compliment each other well and give us some insight into the world and its people. Jaumé and Brigitta elicit a lot of sympathy from the reader, the former for losing his family in a bloodbath at the age of eight, and the latter for being forced into a marriage with an overweight, sweaty man who rapes her multiple times a day. Together, these characters give us the means to view this world and the desperation of its people, but also the sheer amount of devastation that will fall upon the Seven Kingdoms if the curse is not broken.
Gee deals with a lot of themes in this book, and she does it well. Most prominent of all is the shapeshifting magic used by Innis, and how it affects her. Mages are forbidden from taking the form of other humans, but they also run the risk of madness if they hold forms for too long. I also thought that the way mages are seen was well done, as they were discriminated against in ways that are eerily reminiscent of techniques used in our past to demonise those perceived as different. There's use of derogatory terms such as witches, but also of stories and rumours that serve to represent the mages as subhuman, an example being the rumour that they engage in physical relations with animals. The third theme Gee explores is that of forced or arranged marriages, and how they affect those directly involved, but also those around the marriage. The rape involved in such marriages is both sensitively treated yet crudely referred to by other characters, and this duality works surprisingly well. In my eyes, these themes seem to create a critique and commentary on our own world and our social history, as well as suiting the world that Gee has created.
Sadly, it's not all great. I felt there was a lot of repetition throughout the book. A number of the chapters seem to be variations on the same theme with minor changes, such as the scenes with Princess Brigitta's armsman. We are told numerous times that he wishes to kill the Duke, as he is continually taking the princess against her will. This also extends to Innis, and it is said that she was aware of the weight of a sword across her back, and this phrase was used a few times. Certain words are also overused, such as the term “rutting”, which is used as a vulgar term for intercourse. Many characters use it over the course of the narrative, yet only a handful of times are alternative words used. I also felt as if at times characters said or did things that struck me as particularly stupid. In the later half of the novel, Brigitta wishes to pass some secret information to another character at a party, and she does so whilst blatantly telling this character that the gift she is receiving contains secret documents of high importance.
I also noticed the author seemed to forget her plot points. We are told early on that it's dangerous for a mage – even a powerful one – to hold their shapes for too long, but very rarely can they hold them for potentially days, as it both tires them and they risk losing their own identities. This was mentioned often in the first half of the book, but in the later half it seemed to have been forgotten. Innis was said to be the most powerful and able to hold shifts for untold lengths of time, with the other mages being much less able, yet they are shifted for days at a time towards the end. I felt this possible oversight undermined the magic system, as the limitations seemed very interesting at first. On a similar note, in a large battle scene, we're told that some characters fight from dusk until dawn, which I found very hard to believe, even when the states of the characters, i.e. their hunger, thirst and exhaustion, was ignored.
Overall, I felt that The Sentinel Mage was a fairly good read, but one that was rough around the edges. If a knife had been taken to this book once more, it could have been tidied up a little more and become less repetitive. It didn't grab me as much as many other books have, and I will confess I was a little disappointed by that, but I feel that if you can get past the flaws then buried deep down is a series with a lot of potential. As a book, it's left wide open for the sequels after a slightly rushed ending, and as a whole I felt it was largely average but with some good themes and ideas. If Gee can tighten her writing, then I feel that the next two books are going to only get better.
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