Review: A Young Man Without Magic by Lawrence Watt-Evans

A Young Man Without Magic
A Young Man Without Magic

NOTE: Yes, I’m still sick, but apparently I never posted this review.  Oops.


A Young Man Without Magic
Lawrence Watt-Evans
Tor, 2009

Believe it or not this is my first experience with veteran fantasy author Lawrence Watt-Evans.  While certainly not a bad read by any means it is one rife with problems and one that feels more or less incomplete.  In A Young Man Without Magic our titular young man is the recently-educated and well-to-do Anrel.  His parents were killed in a arcane experiment when he was a child and he was taken in by his uncle, also a Mage.  Anrel, unfortunately, is indeed without magic which in a society ruled by mages means that, despite his birth, Anrel is nothing more then a mere commoner.  A commoner yes but one educated with the finest instruction money can buy.  Returning home from school Anrel finds his boyhood friend Valin, a mage raised from common blood, now something a radical; preaching the importance and power of common man in the governance of society.  When Valin runs afoul of a local lord and winds up dead Anrel’s brash attempt to honor his friend’s memory provokes an avalanche of consequence that sends him on the run.

A Young Man Without Magic is a novel in which a lot and almost nothing happens. A bit of a contradiction I know.  Events and action certainly occur and while consequences ensue they are never really examined in detail and the end result ends up feeling a bit shallow.  While the jacket flap and cover art would have you believe this is a novel of swashbuckling action and daring-do those moments are, in truth, few and far between.  Instead A Young Man Without Magic is more prone to political meditation and lengthy speeches then action set-pieces.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there is an attractive flair to the lengthy political conversations that occur periodically throughout the novel but I a long cry from man-with-sword and wits adventure the jacket copy would have you belie.  In truth I wouldn’t have a problem with all that but, and perhaps this is a spoiler, all these conversations occur with a hero who doesn’t really stand behind his beliefs.  Oh sure Anrel argues his points with cogent and educated grace but his speeches, while they have the outward appearance of passion, are in truth coldly calculated intellectual constructs that bear no relation, or at least little relation, to our hero’s actual opinion.  This is, of course, all information we are privy to as readers, the perspective remains firmly affixed in Anrel’s head, but it doesn’t cast Anrel in any kind of heroic light.

In fact despite the social ramifications of Anrel’s actions his motives remain selfish: avenge his friends death, save his beloved’s sister from death since if he doesn’t she won’t marry him.  Even at the novel’s end I never really felt Anrel progressed as a character and while the novel’s final page sums up the damage that the corrupt system of government has done to Anrel’s personal life leaves uncertain whether or not Anrel’s personal beliefs now mirror his speeches.  Indeed the social change that Anrel’s actions seem to precipitate never comes to any kind of conclusion leaving A Young Man Without Magic to feel like something an introduction rather than a complete story.

Problems with plot and character to aside I really did enjoy reading A Young Man Without Magic.  The action, when it does occur, is exciting and the dialogue is always fresh and engaging.  The world that Watt-Evan’s has crafted is interesting and there are fascinating hints at greater depths to it beyond the limited selection we see over the course of the novel.   The quality of the prose is almost enough overlook the novel’s larger problems but the abrupt conclusion left me feeling cheated.  I found the prose and world engaging enough that I’d be willing to give another story a second-chance but as a stand-alone novel I found A Young Man Without Magic something of a disappointment.

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