The Fire Mages by Pauline M. Ross

fire magesI was fourteen when the Kellon’s Steward first came for me.

Well, blow that. I had my life all planned out, and the Kellon had no part in it, I was sure of that. Still, the Steward was waiting for me, and the question had to be asked before it could be refused. Head high, I crossed the tiny hallway of the cottage, my boots clumping on the wooden floor, and strode into the parlour.

“Ah!” he said, smiling and looking me up and down before settling his gaze on my chest. “Yes, excellent! Do come in — er…?”

“Kyra,” Father said.

“Kyra, yes, yes. Do sit down. Need a little chat with you, my dear.”

Kyra grows up in a small, unassuming village, but she’s always had bigger plans. Becoming a scribe is hard work, but it’s a path that’s open to anyone, as long as you can save up enough for the fees. One thing is certain: she won’t allow her path to be derailed by becoming the Kellon’s drusse. He’d pay her enough that she wouldn’t have to worry about money again, but that isn’t enough to balance the risk that she might have to bear his child before she’s even had chance to begin her studies. Despite her parents’ encouragement to reconsider, she turns him down flat.

I really loved the richness of the social constructs in this book. The drusse system allows a powerful man or woman to bind a concubine (of either gender) to them in a straightforward legal manner, with various contract terms up for negotiation and a duration to be agreed between both parties. It’s not exactly equitable for the less-powerful party — there are often clauses of exclusivity, for instance, that bind in only one direction — but it’s made clear that a contract signed under duress isn’t binding, so at least it’s voluntary. And the society as a whole seems more sex-positive than most: there’s little stigma attached to enjoying sex outside of marriage; prostitution (called ‘companionship’) is a respectable trade for both genders; it’s not uncommon for someone to take multiple partners, whether informally or legally via drusse contracts.

The physical settings are well developed, too, with equal attention to detail in the village where Kyra grows up, the cities she passes through, and the deserted and magical Imperial City. The Imperial City, its many mysteries yielding only to those with magic, was one of my favourite aspects. I don’t want to spoil any of its lurking surprises, but suffice it to say that there’s great skill in the way the long-forgotten magic interacts with the key twists and turns of the plot.

Kyra herself is a great heroine. She sets out with a grim determination to train as a scribe, taking extra jobs to make ends meet. She’s diligent in her studies, and talented: when she declares that she’s the best in her year it isn’t arrogance, it’s just fact. And despite her rejection of the Kellon on the first page, it turns out she’s willing to enter into a drusse contract with a mage if it will get her closer to her goal. Almost every choice Kyra makes is goal-oriented, and in her head at least, she’s coolly logical in her decisions (though she’s a somewhat unreliable narrator when it comes to her own emotions).

As it becomes apparent that she’s got an unusual natural talent for magic, her position becomes both more esteemed and more precarious. And then there’s Drei. Son of the Kellon and a former drusse, he has an uncertain position in the hierarchy, but he also has powers. Together, he and Kyra must learn about their abilities, but as they each develop, they start to grow apart.

I enjoyed this one a lot. Although the pacing is slow in parts, there’s plenty going on, from Kyra’s initial steps into scholarship, through her introduction to courtly intrigue, to her gradual and growing understanding of the nature of love and friendship and family. And there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting along the way.

The Fire Mages is book two of the Brightmoon Annals, although it reads well as a standalone novel; the fourth volume is due to be published later this year. You can find all of Ross’s works on Amazon.

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