[REVIEW] The Powder Mage Trilogy, Brian McClellan

A maroon book cover displayed on a black and white hand-held tablet. The tablet rests on a wooden table with a variety of large Korean food dishes--soup, rice, side dishes-- laid out on it.

(Find it HERE.)

I think all serious readers have their comfort reading habits, right? When I need words but my powers of concentration are low, I read poetry. When I feel the need to wrap up in creativity like a blanket, I find a long fantasy or sci-fi series and immerse myself in another world for a thousand pages or so. I ran across The Powder Mage trilogy when I was in the latter state, and it served its purpose. I love intense fantasy worlds with complicated magic systems, sneaky politics, and bad-ass characters. Powder Mage delivers all of these in the form of militarized wizards who literally eat gunpowder to make battle magic, a bloody royal coup, and a father-son hero duo with a complicated relationship. There’s also regular sorcerers, warring social factions, rival nations and crazy gods in mufti to contend with, making for a pretty entertaining read.

Typically fantasy worlds are in a state of permanent medieval times, but Powder Mage is unique. Guns and magic coexist, and the conflicts between the different types of magic form the basis of the plot conflicts. I can honestly say this is some of the most original world building I’ve come across, and I like the term that’s been coined for it–flintlock fantasy.

That said, Powder Mage is also some of the most exhausting storytelling currently in print. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an action-packed series before, and it’s not always a good thing. Every single chapter has at least one knock-down, drag-out, curb stomp battle and our heroes spend most of their time covered in blood, potentially disabled, captured by torturers or struggling to think past some wound or other. The action scenes are very well-written and all three of these books are an adrenaline high. The problem is, it’s constant. The emotional impact of all these high stakes battles and the often over-simplistic plotting that accompanies them wears off around the middle of the second book. I became far too desensitized to be invested in some of the bigger plot twists or to care much about the constant pain and suffering of the characters. The fact that the relationships between characters all seemed a little distant and cold–we are told people are close, but rarely shown it–also didn’t help me invest in their pain very much. Our father-son duo, Tamas and Taniel, have perhaps two pages of conversation across the whole trilogy–all they seem to do is fight, give orders, bleed, then fight again. (Don’t even get me started on Taniel’s childlike, non-speaking magic lady bodyguard and eventual love interest.) The most fully realized and therefore most enjoyable character is the low level(aka Knacked) magic user and detective Adamat–but even his connections to family, co-conspirators, and even his own talents are used, abused, and finally handwaved in annoying ways to wrap up the plot quickly.

I’m sure by this point someone is saying, “But it’s an action series and military and I bet you don’t like military and action because GIRL!” *grunt* Not quite. I like well-realized speculative military series. The Black Company and a half-dozen of the endless novels set in The Polity come to mind. I’m not saying that the Powder Mage series isn’t well-realized, I’m just saying that I’ve read both better and worse. I will say that I may have made a mistake reading all three novels in one go–maybe if I’d read them separately I’d feel a little less stressed by the onslaught of constant country hopping and catastrophic violence. (FYI, the three books in the series, in order, are Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, and The Autumn Republic.)

I liked the series, but I didn’t love it. It was an entertaining, fully realized fantasy world, but I’m in no hurry to read the follow up series or any of the in-universe novellas(although you can find them all here, if you’re so inclined).

3 stars and a triage unit to The Powder Mage trilogy.

(Beautiful people! I feel like I’m damning this one with faint praise but it was really just okay to me. If you want to take a chance anyway, find it and other fun fantasy novels in the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. If you make any clicks and purchases, a commission may be paid. Peace!)


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