This novella is part of Smith’s The 13th Advocate series. While each tale is designed to stand alone, it might contain mild spoilers for the opening episode.
With the Emperor’s thugs on their tail, Karsten and his llama-familiar Babette set out for the one place they can practice with their magic without immediately revealling their location. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of one of the most inhospitable deserts in the land. Even more unfortunately, Babette just can’t leave other people’s problems alone, leading to Karsten being stuck negotiating access rights for an oasis that wasn’t even on his route.
As with previous episodes, this book is a subversion of the classic “chosen one” trope of fantasy literature: instead of a callow youth struggling to balance idealism with reality, the chosen one is a curmudgeonly veteran unable to be quite as selfish as his cynical exterior suggests. However, again as before, Smith does not simply invert the norm for comic effect; the challenges Karsten faces are both nuanced and dangerous. Readers familiar with the series will therefore find a pleasing balance between freshness and sameness.
While the story itself starts fully in media res, Smith prefaces it with a couple of paragraphs reprising how Karsten came to be a magician on the run from the Emperor. Thus, readers who are new to the series are likely to find it an accessible entry point without readers who are not finding the opening repetitious.
Smith sets the tone from the opening paragraph with Karsten bundling himself up in clothes and gloves while in the desert because touching Babette skin-to-skin risks a flare of magic that can be detected; while Babette attempts to nuzzle him, both for attention and to find snacks. This image both signals the observational style of humour that salts the book and conveys that detection is so dangerous that it is worth doing something as uncomfortable—and potentially dangerous—as overheating in the desert to avoid it.
Befitting a chosen one who is almost free of idealism and public honour, the plot is driven by a clash of two very formal cultures: civilised nobility and desert tribes; and by the convolutions that the publicly honourable will go to to justify their personal lack of honour.
In line with the overall tone, the underlying reasons for the conflict that snared Karsten are both farcical and creepy in turns.
Karsten remains a sympathetic protagonist: while he is certainly not a saint, and might well be less compassionate and polite than we imagine we’d be, he does try to help rather than let irritating people be skewered by their own stupidity. His decades of experience as a warrior and wanderer, combined with his almost entire lack of understanding of magic, create an plausible mix of flexibility and narrowness that both provides powerful solutions and results in him blundering in confusion depending on what a challenge is.
Babette is a llama. Given that core state, is unclear whether also being imbued with mystical power has made her more or less sympathetic. However, she will no doubt please all three llama fans in the English-speaking world, while providing other readers the pleasing sensation of knowing that—however severe their problems—they do not have to also handle having a llama nearby.
The supporting cast of desert tribespersons and civilised persons display a good balance of clear tropes and nuance, suggesting personalities, histories, and likely rules of behaviour from specifics without devolving into crude stereotypes of sub-Arabian Nights desert dwellers and caliph’s courtiers.
Due to the plain-spoken nature of the narrator, there is the occasional uncouth word or image, making this book potentially unsuitable for children whose parents successfully monitor all their reading.
Overall, I enjoyed this novella greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking an engaging variation on classic low fantasy, or the three people in the world who find llamas endearing.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.