Pros: Funny, poignant, and engaging!
Rating: 5 out of 5
T. Kingfisher writes marvelous fantasy stories with a fairy-tale feel to them. In the novella Minor Mage, twelve-year-old Oliver is a very minor mage indeed. He only knows three spells, and one of them is to keep him from reacting to his armadillo familiar’s dander. He’s decent with herbs, but mostly he does things like curing people’s poison ivy or getting rid of gremlin infestations. Since the old village mage died, he’s the closest thing to a wizard these people have. And now, there’s been a terrible drought, one that threatens everyone. Oliver’s mother, a retired mercenary, is off visiting Oliver’s sister in another town, so Oliver’s neighbors band together to insist that he go to the mountains to bring back rain (something the old mage did once in his youth). Oliver had planned to go anyway, but it still hurts that his neighbors would do this to him. He and his armadillo head for the nearby forest on their way to the mountains, but they quickly run into danger. They make a friend in the person of Trebastion, a young minstrel who’s compelled to make magical instruments out of the bodies of murder victims, and who’s on the run from a murderer he outed. The woods are filled with bandits and more, but there might be something lurking that’s on Oliver’s side.
The worldbuilding is interesting. Magic, as seen through some odd abilities various people have, is intriguing and unique. It tends to be different for each person. I love seeing how Oliver with his three spells manages to use them in creative and interesting ways, combining them with a little help from his armadillo and a couple of pigs. On the one hand his familiar keeps saying there’s no point in trying to learn the invisibility spell, which is not as useful as Oliver thinks and beyond his ability, and it hurts Oliver to be discouraged. But on the other hand, the armadillo is very encouraging when it comes to doing the things Oliver is capable of.
Trebastion is a fascinating character. He has this horrible magical ability that he’s compelled to use. When the magical instruments he creates encounter their murderers, they begin to scream–and don’t stop. This doesn’t exactly make him popular, even when people do want his services. When he outs a town mayor as a murderer of children, things go very badly for him. Oliver is forced to choose whether he’ll risk his mission to help Trebastion. He also has to face the fact that his actions result in injuries and deaths, not all of which are clear-cut. And he has some interesting takes on mob mentality that show how gray the issue can be.
Kingfisher notes in her afterword that she thinks of this as a children’s book, but that her readers and editors have told her it’s definitely not. I would have loved this when I was young, but I’m also a lifelong horror fan who wasn’t thrown by some violence, death, and the occasional monster in my youth. It’ll depend on your own kid’s reading habits. As an adult, however, I absolutely loved this book.