Book Review: Battlemage by Stephen Aryan
Series: Book 1 of Age of Darkness
Publisher: Orbit (9/22/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first became aware of Battlemage in the Spring of 2015 and knew right then and there that I had to check it out. Because come on, BATTLEMAGES! Also known as the heavy-hitters of Fantasyland. They. Are. Awesome. As you can guess, I ended up devouring this book pretty quickly. Not only do I love the premise, I also found it to be an extraordinary easy read because of its style and down-to-earth traditional story.
Needless to say, if you’re a fan of mages, wizards, sorcerers, or any of those magician types, you won’t be disappointed. Balfruss is our main battlemage character, one of six who has answered the King of Seveldrom’s call to arms against the mad Emperor Taikon’s invading army from Zecorria. It is said that their enemy is led by a powerful battlemage known as the Warlock, prompting the need for Balfruss and the powers that he and others like him can provide.
While the battlemages combine their efforts, the war is also fought on the frontlines by thousands of unranked soldiers. Among them is Vargus, an aging mercenary who has sworn an oath to fight, even if it means leaving the quiet village that was his home for the last forty years. Gradually, his name becomes known in the army camps for the morale and camaraderie he has instilled in his fellow soldiers, creating a brotherhood that fights as one. And of course, no war is fought without a network of spies and agents in the shadows, led by Talandra, princess of Seveldrom and keeper of all secrets. Taikon of Zecorria may have sparked this religious war under false pretenses, but as the clever and resourceful Talandra proves, two can play at that game.
What really worked for me was the pacing of this novel and the fact that its momentum was almost always a constant. This made Battlemage a very quick and easy read, as I alluded to in my introduction. There is very little downtime, and also plenty of action and battle scenes. Essentially, these fell into two categories, reflecting the reality of a war fought on two fronts – one with magic, and the other with the sword. There’s a good mix of these, so that the plot doesn’t get too repetitive. Balfruss and the battlemages fight in abstract and magical ways that deal more with the mind, while the soldiers like Vargus utilize more direct methods like blades, shields, and just plain muscle strength. Stephen Aryan’s writing style is also very straightforward and casual, so it took very little effort to simply dive right into the story.
Of the characters, I enjoyed all of them but hands down Talandra was my favorite. Balfruss and Vargus are great, but ultimately they are rather standard archetypes for their roles, while Talandra broke the mold in many more ways to become the most interesting. Also, off the top of my head I can name several examples of epic fantasy novels with an ensemble cast where I’ve found the female character’s role to be downplayed and underutilized (especially in first books of a series), but I certainly did not encounter this issue in Battlemage. In fact, Talandra probably plays one of the more important roles in the book, getting the most results by directing a large network of spies who carry out her orders from afar. Her sections aren’t as invigorating as Balfruss or Vargus’s fight scenes, but nevertheless I felt her personal story of sacrifice was the most compelling by far.
The overall plot itself is entertaining, if perhaps more predictable than I would have liked. A lot of the story elements feel familiar like I have read them elsewhere before, such as the mad and sadistic tyrant king, the populace’s fear and mistrust of magic, or the various political machinations – just to name a few. To the author’s credit though, he combines it into a neat package that offers a good mix of everything, plus the setting feels unique. There’s a bit of the new stirred in with the old, so to speak, and I actually wouldn’t have minded a bit more to the world-building to set it further apart from other epic fantasies of its type. There are mentions of faraway places and the fantastical humanoid races that inhabit them, like the Morrin, a horned, yellow-eyed and pointy-eared people; or the Vorga, a saurian race. These are the types of things in the world which I would love to see strengthened and expanded.
So if you’re feeling in the mood for a fun and action-filled fantasy story, you might just find it in Battlemage. It’s true that it doesn’t break much new ground, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it for that reason. I can see the story offering a comfortable and accessible experience to both new and experienced readers of epic fantasy, and I find I’m looking forward to the next book, which I wouldn’t be if this weren’t such a solid start. Definitely give this one a shot if it sounds right for you. And enjoy the battlemages.