A Murder of Mages
by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Yep, from the first sentence, I was hooked.
The TL;DR version: I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve already purchased Maresca’s other book. If you don’t happen to know me, I basically don’t ever buy books. So that’s about the strongest affirmation I can give.
I finished this a few weeks ago, but it took me a while to actually get a review together, mostly because I find it significantly harder to write positive reviews than negative reviews. With negative reviews, I don’t care if anyone agrees with my opinion; all I want to do is give enough information so that readers can make up their own minds as to whether the books are a good fit for them. (Well, and I enjoy the venting part.) However, with positive reviews, I desperately want to help the right audience to find the book. As I said, it’s more of a challenge, especially because I often have trouble identifying why I loved a book.
So why was this book so much fun? To start with, I absolutely adore high-fantasy detective fiction, especially if the world feels solid and yet distinct from our own. The world that Maresca creates definitely fits the bill. While the story itself doesn’t directly involve major politics or war, the issues are there, and they’re casually mentioned by the characters. It does a ton to give the world a grounded, solid feeling. At the same time, there’s plenty of fantasy elements. Some people are born with innate magical abilities, which tend to surface around their teens. Mages quickly become part of mage circles, which are a combination of a school, a fraternity, a union, and a religion. Saying that relations between the law and the circles are tense is an understatement, and someone like Minox--an Uncircled mage who also happens to be a policeman--ends up on everyone’s bad side.
Characters are everything to me, and I loved the diverse characters that Maresca created. The story is told from the perspectives of Satrine Rainey, a brand new constable, and Minox Welling, her unwilling partner. Satrine is a refreshing change from the typical unattached naive female protagonist. She joins the constabulary under false pretenses: after her policeman husband suffers from a terrible injury, she has to support her family in any way she can. Since the only positions open to her have ridiculously low salaries, she tricks her way into a position as constable, third class. She may not have earned her position rightfully, but she certainly works at it--she climbs into sewers, climbs onto roofs, engages in hand-to-hand combat, and appears to be an adept at her world’s equivalent of Parkour. Throughout the book, she has to balance all this with her troublesome kids and her invalid husband.
I liked Minox even more. Already an outcast due to his uncontrolled magical abilities, Minox’s personality doesn’t assist in his ability to win friends and influence people. He’s obsessive, precise, and intense, and follows rigid schedules, with an elaborate vocabulary and an almost complete inability to grasp humor or figurative speech. Dialogues with Minox tend to go like this:
“If you weren’t half crippled I’d knock you in your rutting head.”
“I assure you, I am at most a quarter crippled,” Minox said.
...and I’m pretty sure he’s completely serious.
He appears to have difficulty judging others’ expressions--while he is able to distinguish others’ emotions, he does so through classifying changes in facial muscle or posture. He likes rules. A lot. I think he’s adorable. Basically, I’d say that he has every characteristic of AS (Aspberger’s Syndrome), and I really warmed to his complex character.
I was completely hooked by the plot. As soon as Satrine joins, she and Minox are sent out to investigate a ritualistic murder of a mage. All too soon, it becomes clear that there’s a serial mage-killer on the loose, and tensions between the constabulary and the Circles are about to explode. While I spent the whole book guessing, if there is a fault to find with the book, it’s the mystery itself. It is actually unguessable until the end because basically all of the important pieces of information are withheld. (It’s especially aggravating because I can think of several ways the relevant facts could have been snuck in unobtrusively.) There are also a few details that don’t fit with the final solution. But given the interesting worldbuilding and strong and complex characters, I just don’t care. I adored the interactions between Satrine and Minox. It was great to see a male-female protagonist duo just be comrades, with no romantic entanglement in sight. One aspect that made the story so satisfying was the way the plot touched tangentially on a wide variety of issues from affirmative action to family expectations to rebellious daughters. While the mystery solution is perhaps less satisfying than I could wish, I’m impatient to know more about the plot threads that Maresca left open. Interesting characters, intricate worldbuilding, and a mystery that kept me hooked? Count me in for the sequel. It can’t come soon enough.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Penguin Group. Thank you!~~