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The Magicians’ Guild

by Trudi Canavan (Orbit, 2004)

Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy tells the story of Sonea, a girl from the slums of Imardin, who shocks herself as well as the Magicians’ Guild by the accidental discovery of her magical potential. Can the Guild, which trains young men and women of the nobility in magic, give up its elitist ideals and take on a dwell (local lingo for a slum dweller) as a novice?

In an skewed society that consists of affluent families from the Houses on the one hand and dwells who live on the fringes of society on the other, magicians have for over five hundred years preferred to keep themselves confined to the nobility. Not only are slum dwellers not tested for magical potential, descendents of the Houses believe them to be incapable of learning and generally beneath their contempt.

Thus, every winter the traditional Purge takes place, where magicians gather to drive beggars and other street dwellers out of the city. Safe within their magical shields, they remain unharmed even when furious mobs run riot. However, when a teenage girl whose family has been driven from their home, focuses her rage on a single stone she throws at the magicians, it passes through the shield and injures one of them.

The Guild is alarmed as it realizes that a natural, untrained magician is loose on the streets. Likely to be more powerful than the average novice, unless Sonea is caught and taught to control her power, she could well end up destroying herself and her surroundings. But the magicians are feared and hated by the lower classes, and Sonea’s young friend who has connections with Thieves will risk life and limb to keep her safe.

As the Guild ponders over the problem of Sonea, we come to realize that most of them are quite reasonable men and women, even though generations of isolation from the less privileged sections of society has limited their understanding of the way of life of dwells and the constraints of their existence. Indeed, there are some rather memorable characters. Among them are the young and enterprising Lord Dannyl, whose unconventional ideas alternately shock and impress his colleagues; his former mentor Lord Rothen, an elderly Alchemist who attempts to teach Sonea to trust him; the impressive, aloof High Lord Akkarin, head of the Magicians’ Guild; and the scheming and manipulative Lord Fergun.

A well-paced and intriguing tale, we find ourselves alternately rooting for Sonea and her friend Cery as they flee through the intricate network of underground tunnels known as the Thieves’ Road, and at the same time willing the magicians to catch up before she loses control. But as Sonea powers threaten to give, the magicians close in…

Canavan’s fantasy world is a pleasant change from the usual Lord of the Rings-style tale. Comparisons have been drawn with Garth Nix’s Sabriel, and her magicians/nobility–commoners divide is similar to Jonathan Stroud’s in his Bartimaeus books, but Sonea’s story is refreshingly different. The plot might be simple, but her ease of narration and some interesting characters keep one’s interest alive.

Will Sonea accept being the first magician novice from the lower classes? Will her companions accept her? What of the terrible secret she has carries? Will she have to pay a price for that? All these are questions that will be answered as the trilogy progresses. For the moment, though, The Magicians’ Guild remains the story of an unusual teenager who rises from the slums to be given the chance to look forward to a glorious future. Whether that will be or not remains to be seen.

RATING: 7.5/10

The Black Magician trilogy:

Book II: The Novice
Book III: The High Lord