A thrilling read: The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan

Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy comprises The Magicians’ Guild, The Novice and The High Lord. The story revolves around Sonea, a slum girl who is found to have high magical potential, and the fate of Kyralia, her land, which is under threat from the black magicians of Sachaka’s wastelands.
*There might be spoilers ahead — proceed with caution.


It is the way the story moves that makes The Black Magician trilogy an interesting read. Book 1 — The Magicians’ Guild — was slow-paced. The first part describes the efforts of Sonea to escape the Guild’s capture, the misunderstandings between the Guild and the dwells, and this went on and on and often got boring. The key themes here are the class difference in Kyralia and the fears of acceptance and rejection. The second part, when Sonea is captured by the Guild and taught to control and use her magical potential, is more interesting. We learn that the Guild is not as bad as anyone feared.

In the second book — The Novice — Sonea begins her magic lessons at the University and discovers that she is stronger than most other magicians. The class differences and the sense of privilege of the rich are highlighted again through the activities of the bully Regin and his followers. We don’t see much of the Thieves or the dwells. But soon the book stops being just about Sonea’s development. Political undercurrents become strong, the danger of black magic becomes prominent, Akkarin’s activities become more sinister and grey, and the safety of the Allied Lands is about to be breached. The plot separates into Lord Dannyl’s quest towards the “higher knowledge” gained by Akkarin and his Ambassadorial activities in Elyne (as well as questions about homosexuality) on the one hand and Sonea’s classes and magical growth on the other.
The third book, The High Lord, was incredibly long, and could have been marketed as two separate books. However, the plot was fast-paced and had enough twists to keep the anticipation high. In this final book, we find that the Sachakans are the real threat to Kyralia, and the political implications are higher. There’s method to Akkarin’s madness, one that cannot be explained easily to the Guild or even to Akkarin’s best friend, Administrator Lorlen. While the first two books stayed quite safe of love angles, it is one of main themes in this one, and I will not deny that it is corny. However, I wanted the pair (won’t say who!) to be together and find happiness in adversity. I did not expect the ending, however. I may even have shed a tear or two.


Characterisation is one of Trudi Canavan’s victories. She manages to build up reader sympathy towards almost all the characters in the series: from the protagonist Sonea to her benefactor Lord Rothen and her tormentor novice Regin, from the “Thieves” Ceryni and Faren to the magicians Lord Dannyl, Lord Fergun and Lord Lorlen, from Elyne citizens Tayend and the various Dems to High Lord Akkarin, from Lord Rothen’s helper Tania to Akkarin’s servant Takan, from Sonea’s aunt Jonna to Gol, Cery’s watcher. You can easily imagine each of them in flesh and blood.

Sonea’s character in The Novice was a little too meek for my satisfaction, though. I agree that this built on the ending of The Magicians’ Guild where she gives in to Lord Fergun with too much caution and timidity just because she did not know how powerful she was and how many allies she had. I wasn’t very pleased with her way of dealing with the bully Regin. I thought she was too meek and diffident. It almost seemed as if she cannot form a functional strategy on her own. She needed alchemist Lord Rothen until he was her guardian, and later her best moves came with the help of healer Dorrien. However, in the first and third books, she is strong, confident and stubborn.
Akkarin’s character is rightly made mysterious, and he emerges as a reluctant hero by the end of the books. The confusions and fears of Dannyl and Tayend, and Rothen, and Lorlen, are well captured too. However, IMHO, Canavan doesn’t build the “villains” up very effectively. Though everyone keeps asserting the Sachakan magicians’ strength, we don’t get a rounded study of Kariko or the other Sachakans. A small glimpse of Kariko’s diabolical nature came only when he confronted Rothen and made a bloodstone for him to watch the destruction and death of Kyralia and its magicians. Mindless killing doesn’t make a villain formidable — it’s their amorality or skewed morality that makes them so. We do not get that sense of evil wholesomeness in the Sachakans.

Comparison with Harry Potter

From standard plotlines, anyone can guess that Sonea will emerge as the heroine and save Kyralia. Just like we knew Harry Potter would save the magical world and won’t die in the end. The Black Magician trilogy reminded me of the Harry Potter series in so much as it is a young orphan discovering magic and magical strength and dealing with growing up with magic. However, that’s where the similarities stop. Sonea came from a loving family, just a tad poor, while Harry’s family was cruel to him. Sonea entered the magical world with no friends or support (except her mentor Lord Rothen’s), while Harry was loved by more than half of the magical community and everyone helped him throughout the way. Compared to Sonea, Harry’s life was too easy. He had friends, loving and encouraging teachers and just one enemy — Voldemort, who was disliked by almost all. Sonea has no friends, and even the enemy she has to fight against becomes a real threat to the magical community only towards the end.

The fictional magical world

The magical world created in The Black Magician trilogy, however, is not convincing enough. The story is set in a fictional country called Kyralia, which is ruled by a King and a Guild of Magicians. The Allied Lands include Elyne, Vin and Lan islands, and Lonmar. Sachaka is not part of the Allied Lands and is separated from Kyralia and Elyne by a wasteland that was created during a magicians’ war centuries ago. All that is fine. But I felt that the attempt at creating a new set of words for flora and fauna — ceryni and ravi for rodents, faren for spiders, bol, raka and sumi for beverages (while still maintaining the term wine) — was quite feeble, almost forced. It would have made no difference to the plot if the names weren’t in another “language” or whatever it is that the author envisaged them as.