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Dangerous Waters
by Juliet E. McKenna
Solaris, $7.99, 589pp
Release Date: July 26, 2011

This is the first in The Hadrumal Crisis series, set in a world where magic is carefully regulated, and the archmage has forbidden that magic ever be put to use in warfare or for expediting the travels of merchants. Jilseth is one of the Archmage Planir’s chosen apprentices; she has developed a new magic to trace the path taken by a magic-user, based on her ability to see and manipulate earth energies. She is pursuing the renegade Minelas, a magician who made a specialty of evasive and defensive spells while at school. This makes him very hard to catch. Now Minelas has taken the easy, lucrative route of selling his services to corsairs, occasionally taking employ with a baron only in order to betray said baron’s forces. Soldiers, after all, make better galley slaves than farmers: they have superior muscle mass, more endurance, and a trained ability to follow orders, even when the orders are “Row, row, row….”

One of these slaves is the captured soldier Corrain. Honorable, observant, and resourceful, he makes a fine hero.

McKenna is certainly an adept storyteller. Descriptions are rich prompters to the reader’s own power of imagination. Conflicts are realistic and develop along authentic lines. The shipboard scenes engage all the reader’s senses, including the dread of anticipating the lash of the whip. McKenna also describes the extra-sensory perceptions the wizards enjoy, especially the tactile sensibilities of the earth mages. Characters are delineated with distinct viewpoints, desires, and motivations. Jilseth, though flawed, makes a sympathetic heroine; her foils, the matronly Lady Zurenne and maidenly Ilysh, represent the mundane realm that Jilseth is sworn to defend, even as she walks apart. My favorite character is probably Corrain’s traveling companion and guide, Kusint. I look forward to the continuation of his adventures.

The real villain, to my way of thinking, is the Archmage. He knows Minelas is breaking the pledge, but he chooses to cover up the breach in his ranks and continues to deny overt magical assistance to the beleaguered towns along the coasts that are pillaged and sacked. The justification is always the same: “The truth would undermine (my) authority and do irrevocable harm.” Yeah, yeah, tell that to all the victims of the perpetuated lie. Why is it so flipping hard for authority figures to admit that wrongdoing has happened on their watch? Telling the truth and addressing the problem would be a sight more effective that maintaining a policy of denial. The line has been crossed. Pretending it hasn’t only allows the imbalance of power to worsen.

That was a rant. Now for a quibble. There is no excuse for the excessive use of sentence fragments throughout this book. Most of them could be replaced with correct punctuation without undermining the narrative voice. What was McKenna’s editor thinking? This is the sort of writing that give English teachers grief, for when they expound upon the sin of careless fragment construction (as opposed to deliberate), some obnoxious sloucher with more at’ than apt’ is sure to whine, “But So-and-So does it in her books all the tiiiiime!” C’mon, Solaris, you, as a British publisher, have a reputation to maintain as a bearer of the Gold Standard of Literacy. Play for the side. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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