I had enjoyed Gee’s romantic fantasy offering Thief With No Shadow – see my review here – so was delighted to pick up this book at Fantasycon last year. Would I also like The Sentinel Mage?
In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld of Osgaard, a prince with mage’s blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head and assassins at his heels. Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld’s side as his armsman, protecting and deceiving him.
This is an enjoyable set up, but also cosily familiar. Something nasty is emerging after being let loose so long ago that everyone who knew how to handle it has long gone… And magic-wielders are both feared and hunted down in most of the cursed kingdoms. So when one of their elite units, including Innis, are sent out to scoop up Harkeld, they have to keep their shape-shifting and magical activities to a minimum. That said, I’m not going to reject a read on the grounds that it isn’t original – I’m far more interested in whether it is well-written, engrossing and enjoyable.
I was surprised to find Harkeld rather a priggish pain. Despite spending a lot of time up close and personal with the band of mages, other than his bodyguard, he refuses to let down his guard. He is determined to find them repellent – even after their courage in saving his life several times. It’s a brave decision to continue to make one of the main protagonists so unappealing. However his sister, Brigitta, is far more engaging and her storyline was the one that drew me in the most. From being the victimised, helpless princess used as a pawn in her father’s power ploys, she transforms into a far more nuanced, intriguing character who makes some interesting choices.
As regards the main storyline – the journey to the first anchor stone to try and break the curse – the narrative is smoothly delivered and Gee handles the fight scenes well, providing plenty of tension and drama. I was sufficiently caught up in the story to power through it to discover what happened next. Any grizzles? Gee is evidently a capable and experienced author – but I do feel she could trust her readers a tad more. There is a lot of repetition. Harkeld spends a lot of time gritting his teeth over having to travel with these nasty old mages… Brigitta’s armsman is either being mocked and taunted by the other guards, or eating his heart out over her… Innis is regularly worrying whether she’s spending too long in one shape… As Gee writes very short chapters, and the viewpoint scenes change regularly, having each character revisit these concerns quite so frequently starts to grate a little, as well as slow up the overall pace, which otherwise is pleasingly snappy in a genre with often takes more time than it should.
What she doesn’t do, is spend pages and pages in a lot of complicated exposition about the ancient history going back several generations – a genre convention I’m delighted to see the back of… Will I get hold of The Fire Prince? Probably. If you enjoy a relatively straightforward medieval fantasy read told by an author who knows how to tell the story at a reasonable clip and handles action scenes well, then give this a go.