Servant Mage by Kate Elliott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a nice self-contained story, with a surprising amount of worldbuilding packed into 164 pages. It's an examination of politics, power and class, and what happens when both factions competing for rule are morally deficient and the best course of action is to create an entirely new path.
Fellian is a Lamplighter, a fire mage and indentured servant who is recruited for a quest by a secret member of the rebel faction, the Monarchists. The monarchy was overthrown years ago by the Liberationists, who proceeded to institute a dictatorial regime under the so-called August Protector. Mages are taken from their families when young and bound into service to the Liberationists, and Fellian is assigned to light Lamps and scrub privies for a local lodging house. She also teaches people to read and write on the side, which we discover towards the end of the book was a thing forbidden under the previous regime, along with learning about magery. At the beginning, the Liberationists and the August Protector are meant to be seen as the villains, but as the book progresses we, and Fellian, learn that the Monarchists, for all their carping about honor, were just as corrupt and uncaring.
Fellian is a wonderful protagonist, cautious and pragmatic, if a bit impulsive about speaking her mind. She helps Lord Roake, the Monarchist who hired her to free refugees trapped inside one of the northern mountains, and along the way they end up taking an unexpected side trip to find a legendary five-souled dragonborn child. At the end, Lord Roake expects her to join his cause to return the monarchy to power, but she turns her back on him and returns to the northern village where she was raised. She has seen what the future will be: the Monarchists and Liberationists will fight for control of the land, and in the vacuum left by this struggle she wants to raise her people, the common hill people, to a place where they can live and thrive without either of them.
This is a quieter, thoughtful fantasy, with a great deal to say about the labyrinths of power and revolution. The world is fascinating, and I hope one day the author will return to it.
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