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A Young Man Without Magic
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Tor, $15.99, 348pp
Release Date: December 10, 2013
In Walasia, social status depends on whether or not you passed the test for magical ability administered to adolescents who present themselves for testing. If you pass, you are instantly promoted to the aristocracy, and if your family does not have a recognized magician to raise you in the appropriate manner, you are fostered out to an aristocrat for upbringing and training. Anrel Murau failed the test, and so did not inherit any of his parents’ wealth, lands, or titles; nevertheless, his aristocratic uncle took him in, raised him alongside of his own magically endowed daughter and the fosterling Valin, and sent him to the capital city to study law.

Anrel knows the ways of magicians, having grown up all his life among them, and he now has a thorough grasp of the history and laws of the Walasian Empire; including how, centuries ago, magicians convened a Grand Council to set up the laws that gave magicians their status. And it just so happens that a new Grand Council is to be held, for the purpose of reviewing and changing the laws of the empire in a way that will be more pleasing to the current emperor and his wife. When Valin involves himself in revolutionary politics, Anrel is dubious; not because he doubts his friend’s good intentions to better the lives of citizens, but because Valin is naïve, uninformed, and idealistic to a fault. However, Anrel himself inadvertently does more to start a revolution than Valin with all his protestations and defiance, simply by telling the unvarnished but informative truth. Needless to say, this makes him unpopular with the power-possessing beings of Walasia – unpopular, but very much sought after, so much so that he has to flee his home district.

On the run from guardsmen, Anrel falls in with a family of itinerant witches –persons who did not take the test and join the ranks of nobility, but practice bootleg magic. The penalty for practicing magic illegally is death by hanging, but since witches are the only ones who will do such humble spell-casting as keeping moths out of woolens, or mending the torn ears of cats, or healing sick peasants, they can usually rely on the discretion of the villagers who hire their services. Anrel even falls in love with one of the daughters. But as drought, crop failure, and civil unrest escalate, desperation might strain trust to the breaking point. And Anrel begins to realize that the rising political storm may not just blow over and die down, leaving things very much as they had been. No, Walasia is poised to become something very different, and whether what follows is better or much, much worse just might depend in part on what a young man without magic can bring to bear. (But you’ll have to read the sequel, Above His Proper Station, to find out.)

What makes this book intensely worth reading is that Lawrence Watt-Evans is a superb writer. The drama is tempered by humor, with a fine, ironic edge to it. (There is a scene with Anrel and the footman who serves Anrel’s nemesis, Lord Allutar, that is as splendid a bit of dialogue as ever I have read.) His descriptions of peoples’ motives, be they personal, political, or pragmatic, are insightful and incisive: they cut right to the bone, through all the sham. For all that this book is about the adventures of a young man, there is a mature quality to his deliberations.

The story also focuses on the most fundamental question of empowerment: do you let other people define and determine your access to power, or do you engage your own powers according to the light of your spirit? Corollary to that question is, what safeguards are there against 1) unbridled exercise of power, and 2) laws that become unjust when tyrants wield them or rewrite them?

For all that this seems like a straightforward fantasy adventure, it is profoundly – and disturbingly – relevant to our present condition. But then, the best fiction is always the most truthful. That was as true when Raphael Sabatini wrote Scaramouche and Captain Blood as it is today.

Watt-Evans is scheduled to appear at both this year’s 72nd World Science Fiction Convention in London , England , August 14-18, 2014, and Shamrokon, the Dublin Eurocon, Dublin , Ireland , 22-24 August, 2014. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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