I have a feeling Emma is going to kill me for this review.
This book is a fantasy novel by C. S. Friedman, the first entry into the Magister Trilogy. C. S. Friedman is the author of another fantasy book series that I was never able to get into thanks to unlikable protagonists and a hazy understanding of what the book's main conflict was supposed to be, but which had a really interesting magic system which drove most of the plot.
Now... well, at least I finished the first book of THIS series.
[The rest of this review contains spoilers]
The book opens with a scene that actually blew me away. A witch is old before her time, and feels death approaching. She thinks back on her life, and the regrets she's had, and the good she's done that she can't regret, even knowing she gave her life early for them. She reflects that the people of the nearby village resent her for refusing to heal further, even though she had given her life for them. I was immediately enthused, she was a deeply realized, sympathetic character who is potentially powerful, but is living the consequences of using her power. Many "Magic is powerful, but has consequences" setups wind up only inconveniencing the magic users when it doesn't matter, or concluding the story before it really takes its toll, so it was nice to just see flat out 'here is a character who has power, but is suffering its use'. Then she dies at the end of the first chapter and I never really forgave the book for it.
Because we transition to our REAL protagonist... Kamala. I did not like Kamala. I actually find it difficult to even start on the myriad ways I hated this character. First of all, she's kind of a brat. She throws tantrums when she doesn't get her way, is derisive of pretty much everyone, judges people like crazy when she's no better than them and actively fantasizes about tearing the heads off of babies. No seriously, that happens in this book.
Anyway, she was present when the witch from the first chapter died, and so learned not to use her magic once she discovered she had the skill of wielding it. So she lived in crippling poverty until she decides to become a Magister, an undying super-wizard who circumvents all the interesting problems involved in magic use in this universe. Apparently women never become Magisters, so when she succeeds, it's a big deal. Kamala now needs to prove herself a Magister to the society of Magisters or else they'll... I dunno, kill her or something. I'll get into why this makes no sense later.
However, it looks like her consort, the person whose life-force she steals to power her magic, turns out to be a royal prince of a powerful king. This risks the exposure of the Magister secret, that they steal the lives of ordinary people to empower themselves. If this secret gets out, it's possible the people would rise up and try to destroy the Magisters, which would likely just get tens of thousands of people killed, because Magisters are overpowered. Now, this is an interesting conflict, but it kind of gets brushed aside to set up a later, unrelated conflict.
In the process of trying to integrate herself into Magister society, Kamala winds up killing a Magister because she's kind of a bitch. See, the Magister had been toying with her, thinking she was merely a witch, and so she kicked him in the nuts and threw him off a building. Anyway, this sets up another interesting conflict, since the other Magisters in the society will hunt down the killer of one of their number to discourage anyone else from trying it, and now she can't even reveal that she's a Magister, because then she will have broken one of their central tenants. However, this conflict is also brushed under the rug in order to facilitate a different conflict later.
However, in the investigation, we learn a few things that completely invalidate the caution and trepidation she was approaching the Magister Society with. First of all, the use of a Magister's sorcery is completely distinct from a witch's magic, so the moment she used her first spell in front of the Magisters, she would have proven herself one of them. Second, there's really no reason her Mentor couldn't have introduced her to the society himself, saying, "No seriously guys, this chick is a Magister", which is actually a bit surprising that it didn't happen, since in theory you'd want everyone who took a student to be accountable to the society to teach that student the rules and methods of conduct towards the society itself. If not, a troublemaking or unwise Magister could basically train Magisters who didn't even know they weren't allowed to kill other Magisters and set them loose.
Finally, it's established very firmly that the bored, immortal Magisters like nothing better than new, original ideas, so if she said, "I'm a female Magister" that would have ensured her life being safe from them, even if they didn't believe her, simply because they'd be entertained by the very idea of it! So nothing about this element makes any sense whatsoever, no matter how I come at it.
Anyway, the actual plot, that dragons are coming to kill and eat all humans only really develops 3/4ths of the way through the book. So many plots had been introduced and resolved by now that I almost expected the Dragons to all get killed before a new plot got introduced, but apparently this war is what the whole series is about.
Another problem I had with this book was in it telling the audience too much, then still expecting a reveal to hold weight. A pair of Magister characters discover the same information two or three times about the Dragons returning.
Honestly though, my biggest problem is that the world is so crapsack terrible to live in that I can't even root for it to be saved. The dragons should just eat everyone and put them out of their misery.
* There's an insane, brutal dictator king ruling the world's largest empire, ruthlessly expanding through war crimes, rape, pillage, and so on.
* There's massive, crippling poverty absolutely everywhere such that it's not only customary for families to prostitute their prepubescent children... it's so common that even royalty aren't surprised by the practice.
* Speaking of rape, there are four separate instances of rape or attempted rape throughout this book.
* We never see a single normal, happy individual, group, or situation. Everyone is miserable and terrible.
I'm trying to end on a positive note, but seriously, aside from, "It was a fantasy story... it had dragons and sorcery and swords, and just having that is automatic bonus points", I really can't think of much. I really liked Andovan, the prince whose life force was being taken to fuel Kamala's power. The magic system was honestly very cool and I really thought that witches should have taken center stage instead of Magisters, who sidestep every interesting issue with using magic.