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Mystic
by Jason Denzel
Tor, $25.99, 320pp
Published: November 2015

I've devoured a few novels over the last year, but never one quite like this. I started it while enjoying a bath and finished its 315 pages less than four hours later, even though I suffered a migraine partway through and couldn't see for a while. To suggest that this is an easy read is an understatement. The question is whether it's more than merely an engaging romp and I'm not sure that it is.

Perhaps the book's biggest weakness is in how conventionally it plays. Jason Denzel clearly knows a lot about the fantasy genre, given that he founded the Dragonmount community that revolves around Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' series. However he pulls out all the archetypes here to tell us a story that we've probably all heard before, just with different names, places and so on. Anyone who's read more than a couple of fantasy novels isn't likely to find any surprises here.

However, the book's biggest success is surely in how much he makes us care. Even if I knew precisely where the story was going to go after a dozen pages and saw the twist at the very end a mile away, I still absolutely felt for the leading lady at every point of her saga, not to mention some other characters too, and I have to admit that I got rather teary eyed during the finale.

Put the two together and I hope that Jason Denzel continues to write novels because he clearly has the talent to do something special, once he finds the confidence to really step out and create something unique. Even Jordan began as just another author of 'Conan' novels, however good they happened to be. They weren't particularly original, but once he found his stride he created a world that people loved so much they created online communities to celebrate it. It would be a glorious irony if the creator of one such community became a writer that others would celebrate as he did Jordan.

Denzel places us on the island of Moth, which has some Scots influence to it but predominantly plays like a fictional Ireland. It's a place of magic, here known as the Myst and presided over by Mystics. For hundreds of years, nobles have competed to become Mystics and learn about the Myst, but that's about to change as Pomella AnDone, a mere teenage peasant from the village of Oakspring, is invited to compete by the High Mystic. This controversial decision to include a commoner for the first time in history is enough to stir up a whole bunch of problems for Pomella and the entire competition. How that stirring happens and what it ends up producing constitute our story.

'Mystic' is so relentlessly generic that, putting virtual pen to paper only a couple of weeks after devouring it from cover to cover, I find that I've lost a great deal of the detail. I remember it with nothing but affection, a smile on my face as I do so, but I don't remember it well. 

One thing I remember is how it feels like a self-contained story, reaching a natural end in a natural sort of timeframe, but still raises a great deal that doesn't have the time or space for expansion.  We learn about this just as Pomella does, her knowledge sadly lacking in comparison with the trio of nobles with whom she must compete. They come from families that have contained many Mystics; she's never even met one. They come with varying degrees of skill in using the Myst; she has no idea how to use it and doesn't even really know what it is, just that she has a healthy respect for it. They know the rules of the game and what winning actually means; she doesn't have a clue. She doesn't even know that there's more than one High Mystic. Instead she wings it, just as we do as readers, picking up little bits of knowledge as and when she can.

Mostly this is because she's spent her entire life in a rural village. The world at large is a mystery to her, as it is to us. Given that she only has 300 and some pages to work through an entire story, she doesn't have time to follow up on each little discovery she makes, like the lizard men who look after the forest, the wispy creatures of the Myst that she discovers others can actually see too or the caste of people known as Unclaimed who are shunned by society. There are a lot of little details here that could easily be spun out into broader stories if Denzel wants to do so.

I recommend 'Mystic' to anyone who likes fantasy, with the caveat that it's not going to be anything that experienced genre readers haven't seen before many times. We root for the underdog, we cheer for the lovestruck sidekick and we hiss at the villains. You know the score, I'm sure. I'd especially recommend it to younger audiences who don't have a strong background in the genre because this is an easy and accessible read that would work well as an introduction to it. I don't think it's YA fiction per se, but it works just as well. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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