Dangerous Waters by Juliet McKenna. Book review

dangerousDANGEROUS WATERS by Juliet McKenna, Solaris, paperback, £7.99, www.solarisbooks.com

Reviewed by Richard Webb @RaW_writing

High magic in fantasy is inherently problematic as it can be used heavy-handedly to solve all plot problems. Juliet McKenna makes this the whole point in her world: wizards can be so powerful they are prized by those without such powers (‘Muggles’?) as potential super-weapons…to use heavy-handedly to solve all their plot problems! This conundrum is well thought-through and well-executed: in demonstrating just how powerful such wizards can be the use of magic of course becomes the single determining factor in almost every scene in which it is used, but in so doing magic creates new crises with every resolution delivered—it never provides ‘neat and tidy’ closure to situations.

Reading one of the author’s titles for the first time, I knew I was in the hands of an experienced world-builder, because this restraint is built into the ‘rules’ of this world. Magic is not rare because of a scarcity of wizards — there is a whole island full of them — but due to the restrictions these spell-casters place upon themselves, vowing not to intervene in the conflicts between the non-magical mainlanders and the raiders from the archipelagos. The continuing challenges to their objectivity drives the narratives but also ensures that overt demonstrations of magic are limited in frequency, ensuring that these moments have impact in the book.

This then allows for the inclusion of a rogue practitioner who ignores such vows, and also for the possibility of a more instinctive ‘wild’ magic that is not so much studied as inherent, both of which set up intriguing possibilities for the rest of the series; magic itself becomes the contested resource, which enables power to be exerted, lands to be defended and so on, reminiscent of the ‘value’ of dragons in ASOIAF. One quibble was the vague motivation of ‘money’ as a reason for the wizard Minelas to go rogue: might not a magic-user have easier means of amassing wealth then simply becoming a mage-for-hire? The seeming lack of a darker purpose, together with his prolonged absence for much of this book, reduced his impact as an antagonist.

Whilst on characters, I noted in Juliet McKenna’s highly readable blog that she has received grumblings about the ‘weak’ character of Lady Zurenne, when fantasy could do with more strong women. Lady Zurenne isn’t a strong character, but is a real character, limited in her actions by her need to protect her daughters. She is powerless, but through situation rather than nature. And not every female character has to be strong, even when depicted by a female author…and besides, perhaps compromising to make the best of a bad situation (created by men) is strength of a different, less obvious sort.

Jilseth, a female mage, is similarly subtle. She is less demonstrative than her powers could enable her to be, because she is tasked with an observation-only mission, but struggles with the desire to intervene. For this reader, her development in both action and character will be a key thread to look out for in the next part of the series.

The plots are deftly handled and the variations in pace blend action with more reflective moments necessary to seed-in longer arcs. There is a reassuringly immersive quality to the world here, painted in detail and colour rather than hurriedly sketched. The glimpses of the history, culture and politics ring true; for example, the depictions of ancient sea-faring and piracy demonstrate authorial research and enrich the atmosphere and action without excess ‘history buff’ verbiage just for the sake of it. Time is taken to show how this world works, so if you’re impatient for hack ‘n’ slash thrills this probably isn’t for you, though this is not to say the book lacks action: it has enough blade work for all but the most bloodthirsty Grimdarks.

There was a sense of entering a world one should already know something about; much about Caladhria and its neighbouring lands having been well established in previous sagas by the author. Whilst I cannot blame her for not wishing to re-build something I hadn’t read, nonetheless I needed several pauses to check the map. I am used to this as a seasoned reader of fantasy but a glossary/cast list might be needed as the series expands

A rich booty of plot lines, PoVs, context, detail and some real gold in the dialogue make for a rewarding and engrossing read.