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Kate Elliott’s latest book, the standalone epic fantasy novella Servant Mage, tells the story of a commoner swept into an overthrown monarchy’s struggle against the new regime. Fellian, like all mages since the so-called Liberationists came into power, is forced to use her gifts in service of the new government, and she’s working as an indentured servant at an inn when she’s found by a group of Monarchists seeking her aid. They need someone with her type of magic to light the way for people trapped in a mine, and they sneak her out of the inn so she can do just that. But they don’t get very far before their plans change, and they embark on a new mission that they are uniquely suited for as a group of mages with all five elemental powers: trying to save a newborn dragon queen from the new ruler, who will try to kill her.

There’s a lot that I appreciate about Servant Mage, from the way it subverts a lot of common fantasy/storytelling elements to its focus on a commoner’s perspective. Although this is a quest tale set amidst a power struggle, it’s also about the regular people who live through all these big events. Fellian is thrust into an ongoing epic story, surrounded by others who have had an impact on recent history and been involved in the conflict between the Monarchists and the Liberationists. She’s not a chosen one or someone who is so uniquely powerful that she is the only one who can carry out an important task. The group that finds her needs someone who can do basic fire magic—creating light—and selected her because she was not going to be sympathetic to the Liberationists’ cause after they made her an indentured servant and executed her family.

And Fellian is a great protagonist: she’s unafraid to ask questions that might show people the error of their ways, determined, clever, and resourceful. Despite her lack of training, she’s managed to teach herself a bit about her magic and has potential to be a powerful fire mage, and she does what she can to help other people even when doing so could have terrible consequences for her. But the qualities that really made her shine were her unshakeable confidence in who she is and what she believes and the way she cared about the more ordinary people who are often overlooked. As someone who has been politically powerless throughout her life, she sees them, their suffering, sacrifices, and struggles—and not just the nobles, rulers, and dragon queens of the world.

There’s another aspect of this novella that I particularly enjoyed that becomes clearer and clearer throughout the book. I don’t expect this to necessarily be much of a surprise, especially to those already familiar with Kate Elliott and her work, but I’m hiding it behind spoiler tags for those who’d rather avoid knowing too much about what unfolds.

Yet, as much as I appreciated Servant Mage, I didn’t love it, in part because of the very same things that make it interesting. It’s a wonderful exploration of fantasy and storytelling conventions, and it successfully subverts common tropes and story cues while focusing on someone who has little power but nevertheless finds ways to have an impact. However, by holding back from revealing too much too soon so that readers can lean into their assumptions about how stories are supposed to go, it keeps some distance from Fellian’s thoughts and feelings. Given that she mainly interacts with people she doesn’t know very well, that means she’s not an especially vibrant character to read about, though she is admirable and it’s clear who she is by the end.

That wasn’t the only reason I wasn’t completely invested in this story, though. Fellian is the only character who is at all fleshed out, and the rest of the group seems to fill certain roles rather than having much personality of their own: there’s the leader, the leader’s loyal second-in-command, the male love interest, the female love interest, etc. There’s also quite a bit of discussion about the world and magic, and I don’t tend to find more knowledgeable people explaining these to a less knowledgeable main character particularly compelling, although this was at least interspersed between other scenes and never went on for so long that I completely lost interest.

Ultimately, that’s why I liked but did not love Servant Mage: it was readable enough that I was never tempted to set it aside, but I found the way the story fit together more engaging than a lot of the actual journey. It’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into crafting this story, and it beautifully ties the beginning together with the ending, making it a book I valued more after finishing it and seeing the full picture. But it has neither the heart nor teeth that would make me care intensely about the story or characters, and there’s no reveal so mind-blowing that it makes up for that completely, even if it does some interesting things.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC and finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Servant Mage