THE SPIRIT LENS (Collegia Magica, book 1) by Carol Berg
ROC, 2010, 464 pages, 978-0-451-46311-1, Trade Paperback, $16.00
Since finishing The Spirit Lens well over a week ago, I’ve been surprised to see next to no reviews about it on the book blogs and forums that I typically frequent. So far I’ve only encountered one, and I admit to finding the lack of attention baffling. I’ve been anticipating The Spirit Lens since I first heard about it late last year, and it was the first thing I bought in January. I went to the bookstore the day it was released and snatched it from a stocking cart while no one was looking. Admittedly, I had trouble starting it after that, which I blame entirely on the fact that I was terribly sick for the first week that I had it. I muddled through the prelude with a cloudy head, and only after I was feeling better did I allow myself to move on to chapter one.
Truly, there are no words to describe how I really feel about this book. I suppose the closest I could come would be to recreate the near unintelligible e-mail that I wrote to my friend the very second that I stopped gaping and put the book down—but not only would that be uninformative for you, it would be highly embarrassing for me. All I can tell you is that Carol Berg has successfully upended my world yet again, and as soon as I stop pouting over the need to wait another year to see what happens next in her Collegia Magica trilogy, I’ll start looking for ways to build her a shrine in my computer room.
But, in all seriousness, and despite my rather copious praise-raining (after all, we wouldn’t want to build it up too much, would we?), The Spirit Lens is an incredibly enjoyable fantasy adventure for those who love unexpected heroes, web-worked plots, magic versus technology, and librarians with a skill for investigative spying.
In lieu of my own summary, this time, I offer the back-cover synopsis:
“For Portier de Savin-Duplais, failed student of magic, sorcery’s decline into ambiguity and cheap illusion is but a culmination of life’s bitter disappointments. Reduced to tending the library at Sabria’s last collegia magica, he fights off despair with scholarship. But when the king of Sabria charges him to investigate an attempted murder that has disturbing magical resonances, Portier believes his dreams of a greater destiny might at last be fulfilled.
As the king’s new agente confide, Portier—much to his dismay—is partnered with the popinjay Ilario de Sylvae, the laughingstock of Sabria’s court. Then the need to infiltrate a magical cabal leads Portier to Dante, a brooding, brilliant young sorcerer whose heretical ideas and penchant for violence threaten to expose the investigation before it’s begun. But in an ever-shifting landscape of murders, betrayals, old secrets, and unholy sorcery, the three agentes will be forced to test the boundaries of magic, nature, and the divine.”
I’ll say it again, as I’ve said it several times before and will likely keep saying it—Carol Berg’s characters make her stories real. Yes, there are many, many reasons to love her novels: the plots, the mysteries, the settings, and the beautiful language. However, it’s the characters who offer the personal connections to all of those things and, without them, it just wouldn’t be the same. Not even a little bit.
What I enjoy, in particular, is the type of character she often chooses to tell the story. Now, I’m not necessarily a proponent of the “everyman” school of thought—I really rather enjoy stories about people who aren’t just your average joe—but in a way, I feel like Berg’s characters are just that…except that they’re not, exactly.
Let’s look at Portier, for example. Here’s a man who, theoretically, could have been an important individual with prestigious, if distant, family ties and yet…he’s not incredible at all. He’s a failed mage turned librarian, and while I might find that interesting, it’s not something to be excited about in his world. Portier had dreams of becoming someone important (as we all do)—someone whose destiny allows him to make a difference in the world. But at the beginning of The Spirit Lens, he has all but given up thoughts of such things. He begins the story believing himself to be quite ordinary—even shamed by his failure—but he then finds himself offered an unexpected opportunity to change that. Over the course of the novel Portier deals with many types of people—royalty, mages, and villagers—yet he himself never loses his own identity or the aspects that make him easy to relate to—his down to earth outlook and his determination.
Something about a character who had great potential, lost it, and must now struggle to regain it (but not at all in the way he expected) is very attractive me. I certainly can’t say why, but I can say that Portier joins the ranks of other similar characters, only with a lot less arm twisting which, I’ll be honest, is a nice change. I do get a bit tired of the reluctant, and occasionally whiny, narrators in fantasy (though they do have their place).
And again. Curator of Archives. What’s not to love about that?
The other characters have surprises of their own, though you may initially think of them as strangely stereotypical—the foppish courtier and the brooding mage. I wouldn’t be too quick to judge, however, as Ilario de Sylvae and Dante have secrets of their own that even Portier, despite being placed in the role of investigator and spy, fails to realize. By the middle of the book, I was thoroughly in love with Ilario, and Dante is nothing if not a surprise by the end (but, shhh, no spoiling it). I suspect the second book in the series will be replete with further revelations about them (which is to say, I hope so).
By way of less prominent characters, I will say that King Philippe surprised me. A sovereign who listens to reason? One who isn’t completely rash, even though he can become quite angry, and actually stops to consider things he doesn’t want to hear? This is the sort of monarch I can respect, and it isn’t the portrayal of kings and royalty that I’ve become accustomed to.
Of course, if it turns out, down the line, that he’s the mastermind behind all of the unfortunate nastiness going on in Sabria, I’m going to have to eat that paragraph.
Of his queen, Eugenie, the reader sees relatively little until closer to the end of the novel (though she’s much discussed by others). Even so, the descriptions provided as Portier comes into limited contact with her give a definite impression of etherealness, elegance, and fragility. She isn’t weak of personality, however. When we’re finally allowed to fully experience Eugenie in a few scenes, she demonstrates considerable strength of character, and I definitely hope that her presence will be expanded in future books. I expect she’ll be quite fascinating. Carol Berg has a knack for good female characters.
The world of The Spirit Lens is well rendered in Berg’s always-lovely prose, though in some ways it takes a back seat to the narrative. Some may not like this, but I find it natural given the narrator’s familiarity with his surroundings. The back cover of the book describes it as “a kingdom on the verge of a grand Renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery” and, honestly, that’s as apt a summary as any. The separation between those who favor science and those who favor magic is an interesting aspect of the world, as is the obvious difference among magic users—those who excel at it are easily distinguished by those who do not. And, of course, the doctrines of the Camarilla (the group that regulates magical learning and advancement in Sabria) are sometimes at odds with other forms of magic, which becomes apparent. By the end, those other forms are bleeding ever more quickly into the world, and there’s no way to tell whether it can be stopped or whether it’s going to change the nature of magic (and the kingdom) altogether.
Speaking of the ending, I’m not going to do anything that would spoil potential readers, but I will tell you that Berg’s modus operandi hasn’t changed in all the time I’ve been reading her books. Inevitably, you’ll reach the last one-hundred pages of a Carol Berg novel thinking that you’ve got a grip on what’s happening, and the next thing you know you’ve been sucker punched. Then, just as you’re getting up off the floor, she hits you another couple of times and, frankly, you don’t know what just happened or where it came from, but you’re well aware of the fact that it was pretty darn awesome and you’ll need a few days to recover.
This is exactly what happened during the end of The Spirit Lens. And, as Berg tends to do (with a skill that rather frightens me, to be honest), she made these revelations occur just when I was beginning to ask myself “Whatever happened to ____?” and “What’s going on with ____?” That’s when I stopped to realize that she’d been diverting my attention with the obvious story thread in order to prevent me noticing what was happening in the background. She’s a sly one. Keep an eye on her. Somehow I always forget how good she is at surprise and misdirection, but I’m going to remember it next time. Really.
All things considered, I suppose it’s good that I have access to a Carol Berg novel only once a year or so. Otherwise, I’d never…never, ever…get any work done.
On that note, I will leave you with an enthusiastic recommendation and get to work on my next review which will, as a matter of fact, be a contribution to BSC Review.