Ebon Drayden discovered as a child that he possessed the gift of transmutation, one of the four schools of magic. However, his father forbade him to learn; a prohibition that only grew stronger after the death of Ebon’s older brother left Ebon heir to his father’s share of the Drayden merchant empire. Finally, just before his seventeenth birthday, his aunt convinces the family to let him join the Academy. Over a decade older than the other first year students, he is alternately mocked for his ineptitude and feared for his connection to one of the most distrusted families in Underrealm; a situation that only deteriorates when his father demands he perform a few simple tasks in exchange for continued study.
Certain events in this book overlap events from the Nightblade arc. However, they are presented with sufficient surrounding detail that they will not lack weight or clarity to readers who enter Underrealm here.
All of the events take place within the King’s Seat, capital city of the realm, with most taking place within the Academy itself. As such, the background focuses on depth where Nightblade displayed the width of the world. However, Robinson maintains his lightness of exposition, preventing this focus from turning the story into a lesson.
Indeed, Robinson makes the actual lessons that Ebon attends free of lectures. In addition to serving as a powerful vessel for Ebon’s sense of lacking the understanding other mages have had since childhood, this mystical “feel the magic rather than follow the steps” approach skilfully avoids the issue of writing a set of instructions that both sound like rules of magic and don’t make that magic seem as mundane (in process if not in ingredients) as any other subject.
While the curriculum differs strongly from that of most real world schools, student life is immediately recognisable. Students form hierarchies and cliques based on a school of magic being better or worse, respect and power within the student body goes to those who are the most forceful not the most worthy, and the bookish and odd are outsiders still.
However, what differentiates this from many “ill-at-ease youth enters a school/society/paramilitary force for those with magical gifts” tales, is that Ebon is – apart from starting his training much later than usual – not that special. Although he is a scion of a powerful family, he does not bear the traits of a destined hero; he shows no unusual gift lost to the ages; he is – for a mage – a decent and dutiful but unremarkable youth.
His only potential advantage – that of the Dreyden lineage – is a burden to him, as he is too decent to be the man who would use its power while still bearing the reputation of one marked by unpleasant deeds. A reputation made closer to the truth by his father’s demands.
Ebon’s lack of a manifest destiny renders him a highly empathetic character. While his options include those not available to the reader, his choices must be made with the same lack of a universe conspiring for his success that readers face. As such, he is likely to seem as familiar to those who had pleasant school days as those who were consigned to the periphery.
The supporting cast share the same qualities as both Ebon and the background. Similar, rather than a broad mix, they are distinguished not by the unique roles and skills that Loren and her companions displayed through the Nightblade arc, but by differences of character and viewpoint. While each mage is shaped by their magical school, even the most briefly mentioned of mages is defined by more than their spells.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a fast-paced fantasy with an interesting, but not overpowering, magic system.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.