Review: The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg
The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

The Spirit Lens
Carol Berg
Roc, 2010

First Line: Philosophers claimed the Blood Wars had irredeemable corrupted magic.

In the Renaissance like kingdom of Sabria failed magician turned librarian and cousin to King Phillipe, Portier de Savin-Duplais is tasked by his royal brethren to root out the traitors who have attempted to take his life.  What follows is a solid mystery tale within a beautifully realized world fraught with tension between science and magic.  With The Spirit Lens Berg has created a fantastic new setting and kicked off what looks to be an entertaining and original series.

The real strength of The Spirit Lens is its trifecta of male leads: Portier, the mage Dante, and the knight Ilario.  In each Berg has crafted a complex and realistic character that add something unique and vital to the proceedings.  In a world where magic is typically carried in the blood of the nobility Portier is something of a failure having been unable, despite his lineage and basic understanding of magic, to cast the simplest of spells.  The Camarilla Magica, the school of magic attended by those who wish to learn magic, teaches a form of magic that uses precise formula to create the desired effect and is, in this way, not dissimilar to science.  When Portier meets Dante, the virulent and mercurial wild master mage, he is confronted with a man who has delved into magic as a natural force; a man who had learned his art outside the prescribed teaching of the Camarilla.  Thus the two have, to start, something of an antagonistic relationship with Dante looking down on Portier for his Camarilla infused habits and Portier afraid of Dante’s near heretical beliefs.  Their relationship is perhaps one of, if not the most, interested ones in the novel.  The constant shifting between the roles of master and student, comradely, and rivalry plays an integral role in the plot.  Lord Ilario is portrayed as something of a fop, a good natured if foolish man wholly dedicated to proving his sister the Queen’s innocence in the attempt of Phillipe’s life.  He serves, somewhat as comic relief, and the brusque straight forward nature of Dante’s personality plays wonderfully the cultured mannerisms of Ilario’s courtly life.  Ilario also serves a great purpose in one of the novels most exciting passages, but saying more then that verges too far into spoiler territory.

In The Spirit Lens Berg spends very little time exploring the world outside the confines of the plot.  At around 480 pages this lends the novel a rather brisk pace while allowing Berg some room to explore the history and culture of Sabria.  Again all that exploring is done in service to the plot.  I can remember no instance in the novel where something we learn in the novel isn’t tied somehow to the mystery Portier has been tasked to uncover.  This leaves the world beyond the boundaries of this story a mere shadow that lingers at the edge of the reader’s vision.  This isn’t a bad thing, but extreme focus reminds me more of a straight up mystery or thriller rather then a fantasy novel.  The mystery itself is tied closely to the history of Sabria so Berg manages to work some subtle world-building into the course of the novel and the whole thing is gloriously free of any lengthy info dumps.

With the exception towards the middle of the novel The Spirit Lens is light on action.  Portier is an academic, more Holmes then Hammer, and his sleuthing is done via stealth and intrigue.  This could have been a bit dry if done poorly but the menace and magic behind the threat that Portier uncovers lends a certain thrill to the narrative and given his lack of magical skills heightens the sense of danger.  This danger is made all the more palpable as the reader learns about the banned method of bleeding royal (i.e. magical) blood to empower spells; a threat especially potent for people like Portier who, despite royal blood, have no magic of their own.

As the novel progresses magic plays an increasingly important role in the plot and Berg does a masterful job at obscuring the true threat and clouding the motivations of everyone we meet.  Indeed the weight of the threats revealed towards the end of the novel, and Berg’s impressive characterization skills, lent an emotional weight to final pages that was wholly unexpected and decidedly welcome.  I am left eager for the next volume and impatient to see where the story goes from here.  Both fans of mystery and fantasy lovers would do well to check out The Spirit Lens and join in the agonizingly long wait for the next volume (The Soul Mirror, 2011).

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg

  1. Pingback: April Summary…and Beyond! « King of the Nerds!!!

  2. Pingback: The Spirit Lens by C. Berg | Literary Escapism

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