Review: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines. Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good. But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…

Publication details: 18 January 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

One day I will read a novella and be fully satisfied with it as a novella (ok, this has happened occasionally, but it’s very rare). It’s a tricky length to get right, and while I enjoyed aspects of Servant Mage, ultimately Elliott falls into the trap that seems to catch many a novella writer – that of trying to do far too much in too few pages. The result is a novella that’s fun but ultimately under-baked.

Our main character Fellion is a fire-mage in a world where mages – those who can control aether to various ends – are routinely imprisoned and forced into indentured servitude. Fellion is freed from her servant’s position by a group of rebel mages, who need her fire-mage abilities to rescue their compatriots from a collapsed mine. There is also a broader story playing out, as our rebel mages find themselves caught up in the conflict between the current liberationist government and the previously overthrown monarchists, who have caught wind of a newborn child with royal lineage who could be a catalyst for their return.

The magic system and the broader world are unique and vibrant; I loved learning about all the various classes of mages. Those who have read Elliott’s other books will also recognise her ‘kitchen sink’ approach to world-building; even in this relatively small novella, we have magical portals, demons and soul-wraiths (and somehow a plot about cattle acting as protecters against demons), people inheriting their mage powers from dragons, and much more. It’s all a bit bonkers but a lot of fun.

That said, it’s a lot, generally, for 176 pages, which is where my dissatisfaction with the rest of the novella comes in. There’s simply not enough room for the characters to develop. Fellion is the most fleshed-out character, and I still feel like I barely knew her by the end – she’s not necessarily dragged along kicking and screaming by the plot, but she definitely bobs on its tide, and things happen to her because they’re necessary for the plot to unfold, rather than because of her active decisions. She ostensibly agrees to help the rebels in exchange for being able to find the family she lost when she was captured and indentured, but it doesn’t really feel like much of a meaningful character motivation because we are told almost nothing about the family she left behind.

The ensemble cast fares even worse. Servant Mage quite clearly wants to be an ensemble novella with some hints towards the possibility of a found family, but I would struggle to tell you any more than the characters’ names and their respective mage powers. Some of them hold secrets, but these are all dropped in service of the plot, and there’s never any understanding of why such things are secrets or what it means for the characters to hold them/reveal them. There’s also not enough space to examine the mixed relationships with the former monarchy each character has – though we are told they have them – so a lot of the anti-monarchial critique falls flat. I am primarily a character/relationship driven-reader and, putting all this together, I found the entire story a little underwhelming as a result.

Hence, I am left with the same feeling I experience all too often when I read a novella: I would have loved this if it was a novel.

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