Book review: Angel Mage by Garth Nix
Creating a new fantasy universe usually involves a fair bit of convention with certain recognisable features that make the introduction into a new world familiar enough. Often what distinguishes one apart from the other is what you do with them. Garth Nix succeeds on both fronts in Angel Mage, taking familiar elements from less obvious places to create a standalone fantasy book that has potential to be an interesting series.
Essentially, since the angel fantasy is based on the familiar hierarchy of Seraphim through to Archangels, rather than literally redrawing the map, those provided here indicate that Angel Mage takes place in a kind of alternate version of Western Europe, principally in Sarance (France), Ystara (Spain) with references to Alba (England). It's the references for the period setting however that really sets Angel Mage up, this being a Sarance in debt to and taking much of its adventure setting from Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.
The Three Musketeers as an angel fantasy novel turns out to be every bit as fun and exciting an idea as it sounds, and Angel Mage is well-pitched towards a young adult audience in this regard. In this world angel magic is common, people using painted icons to call on angel powers for anything from minor aliments to domestic cleaning. In the hands of a mage however, angels can be summoned to wield much greater powers, but there is a high price to be paid for such use.
That's mainly the area of the Pursuivants of Cardinal Andrea Duplessis, the kind of Richlieu figure here, whereas the more practical matters of defense of the realm of Sarance and the Queen lie with the Musketeers of a certain Dartagnan (female here). A rather dangerous Milady-like figure has appeared on the scene, Liliath. Supposedly having died 137 years ago, Liliath may have been partly responsible for an apocalyptic event that brought an Ash Blood plague to Ystara, leaving the whole country occupied by monsters. Teaming up with Refusers - regular people who are not only immune to angel magic, but it is dangerous to use it on them - the resurrected Liliath has plans again for Ystara.
Those plans somehow seem to involve four young people who are brought together at the dreaded Star Fortress by the Musketeers and Pursuivants. Henri, a clerk; Agnez, a cadet Musketeer; Dorotea, a student icon maker; and Simeon, a student doctor, all have talents in their respective fields, but there is another force at work that brings them together at this particular time. The authorities don't seem to know quite what to do with them, but the four 'musketeers' feel that they have an important role to play in combatting the strange forces beginning to manifest again as rumours and fears abound around the return of Liliath, the Maid of Ellanda.
It doesn't take long then to adjust to the world that Garth Nix has created here, nor realise the potential for great adventure to be had with opposing forces that are a little bit different from the usual fantasy figures. The use of angel powers and how they are summoned - as well as the negative impact they can have when used wrongly - also offers considerable potential. And Angel Mage makes great use of all this, not over-elaborating the 'origin' stories of the four young people or the historical backing, nor needing to.
Once established, there is no shortage of incident either in Angel Mage as everyone is put through their paces, although some of the more mundane aspects of the teen bonding and romance do drag a little, inviting you to skip over them to get to the more interesting developments. Even if that does fall into a predictable pattern of a quest there's some originality in how it is handled. It's not long-drawn out either, reaching a proper resolution by the conclusion, but certainly leaving you with the feeling that you'd be happy for a Return of the Angel Mage Musketeers sequel.