Review: Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Nov 23 20:43:40 PST 2022

Servant Mage
by Kate Elliott

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN:      1-250-76904-3
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     165

Servant Mage is a (so far at least) standalone fantasy novella.

Fellian is a servant mage, which means that she makes Lamps for the
customers of the inn, cleans the privies, and watches her effective
owners find ways to put her deeper into indentured servitude. That's
the only life permitted by the August Protector to those found to carry
the taint of magical talent, caused by (it is said) demons who have
bound themselves to their souls. Fellian's effective resistance is
limited to giving covert reading lessons. Or was, before she is hired
by a handsome man who needs a Lamplighter. A man who has been for her
specifically, is a magical Adept, and looks suspiciously like a soldier
for the despised and overthrown monarchists.

A difficulty with writing a story that reverses cliches is that you
have to establish the cliches in order to reverse them, which runs the
risk that a lot of the story may feel cliched. I fear some of that
happened here.

Magic, in this world, is divided into elemental spheres, each of which
has been restricted to limited and practical tasks by the
Liberationists. The new regime searches the population for the
mage-gifted and forces them into public service for the good of all (or
at least that's how they describe it), with as little education as
possible. Fellian was taught to light Lamps, but what she has is fire
magic, and she's worked out some additional techniques on her own. The
Adept is air, and one of the soldiers with him is earth. If you're
guessing that two more elements turn up shortly and something important
happens if you get all five of them together, you're perhaps sensing a
bit of unoriginality in the magic system.

That's not the cliche that's the primary target of this story, though.
The current rulers of this country, led by the austere August
Protector, are dictatorial anti-monarchists who are happy to force
mages into indenture and deny people schooling. Fellian has indeed
fallen in with the monarchists, who unsurprisingly are attempting to
reverse the revolution. They, unlike the Liberationists, respect mages
and are willing to train them, and they would like to recruit Fellian.

I won't spoil the details of where Elliott is going with the plot, but
it does eventually go somewhere refreshingly different. The path to get
there, though, is familiar from any number of fantasy epics that start
with a slave with special powers. Servant Mage is more aware of this
than most, and Fellian is sharp-tongued and suspicious rather than
innocent and trainable, but there are a lot of familiar character
tropes and generic fantasy politics.

This is the second story (along with the Spiritwalker trilogy) of
Elliott's I've read that uses the French Revolution as a political
model but fails to provide satisfying political depth. This one is a
novella and can therefore be forgiven for not having the time to dive
into revolutionary politics, but I wish Elliott would do more with this
idea. Here, the anti-monarchists are straight-up villains, and while
that's partly setup for more nuance than you might be expecting, it
still felt like a waste of the setting. I want the book that tackles
the hard social problem of reconciling the chaos and hopefulness of
political revolution with magical powers that can be dangerous and
oppressive without the structure of tradition. It feels like Elliott
keeps edging towards that book but hasn't found the right hook to write

Instead, we get a solid main character in Fellian, a bunch of
supporting characters who mostly register as "okay," some magical set
pieces that have all the right elements and yet didn't grab my sense of
wonder, and a story that seemed heavily signposted. The conclusion was
the best part of the story, but by the time we got there it wasn't as
much of a surprise as I wanted it to be. I had this feeling with the
Spiritwalker series as well: the pieces making up the story are of good
quality, and Elliott's writing is solid, but the narrative magic never
quite coheres for me. It's the sort of novella where I finished
reading, went "huh," and then was excited to start a new book.

I have no idea if there are plans for more stories in this universe,
but Servant Mage felt like a prelude to a longer series. If that series
does materialize, there are some signs that it could be more
satisfying. At the end of the story, Fellian is finally in a place to
do something original and different, and I am mildly curious what she
might do. Maybe enough to read the next book, if one turns up.

Mostly, though, I'm waiting for the sequel to Unconquerable Sun. Next

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-11-23


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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