YA Weekend: Angel Mage by Garth Nix
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (October 1, 2019)
Length: 560 pages
Since this was my first time reading Garth Nix, I really had no idea what to expect. With the exception of his Old Kingdom series, his books have always given me the impression of being skewed towards younger, Middle Grade readers, which was why I was surprised at the maturity and richness of Angel Mage. I’m not just talking thematically, or the world-building either; even the writing style was very lush and complex, closely resembling the tone of literary classics.
And no wonder. For this novel, Nix was clearly inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. However, the incredible world in which the story takes place feels highly original and unique, filled with a vast trove of magical lore to die for. After more than a hundred years of dormancy, an angelic mage named Liliath emerges from her resting place with the goal of being reunited with her archangel lover once again. In her day, she was a powerful icon maker, and was responsible for the Ash Blood plague which wiped out most of Ystara and transformed many of its victims into horrific monsters called beastlings. The cursed survivors were led to the neighboring capital of Sarance by Liliath where they thrived, but now their descendants are called the Refusers, unable to be touched by magic and shunned by the angels.
As Liliath builds support among the downtrodden Refusers, she also casts her influence outward to four angel-touched young people, all newly arrived in the city: Agnez is a skilled swordswoman and a cadet in the Queen’s Musketeers; Simeon is a promising doctor recently cast out by his institute; Henri is a Cardinal’s clerk who fell into the role by a stroke of fortune; and finally, Dorotea is a scholar and an icon maker of extraordinary talent. The four of them are the key to getting Liliath what she wants, even though they are unaware of their roles in her grand scheme. But as all of them become fast friends, drawn to each other by the hidden threads of fate, eventually they realize Liliath must be stopped and only they can prevent the chaos and destruction which would result from the angel mage’s obsessive quest.
In this fantasy world based on angelic magic and iconography, there’s a lot of background information and detail to get across, making this a very tricky and dense book. I’m not surprised to hear Nix is known for being a master at world building, as evidenced by the amount of thought and effort which must have gone into creating the setting for Angel Mage. In fact, he might have even gotten carried away with it—forgetting that while a complex and rich world is all fine and good, the story needs to be interesting too—because there were sections where I found my attention flagging as I struggled with the information deluge. I hate to say it, but I had to push myself through most of the first hundred pages, because the bulk of it was so tedious.
Thankfully, things improved as our four protagonists were introduced, as the writing style loosened up with their interactions and dialogue, making the story immensely more readable. Although I really enjoyed the idea of icon making and magic from the angels, it was the character development that won me over. Agnez, Henri, Simeon, and Dorotea were all so different, but together their personalities clicked perfectly, and it was convincing and realistic how quickly they became friends. I loved Simeon, a gentle giant who is passionate about healing, as well as flighty Henri who has big dreams but little know-how on how to reach them. And yet, the women were the ones who really stole the show here, with the assertive and hotheaded Agnez offering a counterpoint to the quiet and even-tempered Dorotea. Even Liliath was a powerhouse villainess—ruthless, determined, and uncompromising in her desire to be with her love again. She’s the most frightening sort of antagonist, and while I did not enjoy her POV nearly as much as the other four, it did add a fair amount of excitement and intensity to the overall narrative.
Still, Angel Mage is the kind of book that really demands your full attention, even if it’s not always that successful at keeping it. This can make following the story a little confusing, and there’s also a lot of filler. In general, I think the plot could have used a bit more energy and more even pacing, but that’s really the extent of my complaints.
All in all, I really enjoyed my first book by Garth Nix and would definitely be open to reading more by him in the future. Fans of his will probably eat this one up and fall in love with the characters and this gorgeously crafted world richly threaded with the undertones of a Dumas classic.