Recently I’ve been tossing around the idea of what a more technologically advanced society might look like if magic was harnessed as a power source rather than electricity. What might be the same? What would be different? Similar gadgets, but different batteries? Would we still have iPads and laptops and smart watches? Or would we have traversed a completely different technological tree?
I wonder if the same wonderings have kept Trudi Canavan up at night. Her 2015 Ditmar award winning novel, Thief’s Magic, is based (for some of the time) in a world where an industrial revolution is going on, but one based on harnessing magic as a power source. This allows for both an interesting exploration of a secondary world fantasy, as well as having the makings of a very cool set of magic powered gadgets, with a kind of steam-punk vibe to it (magic-punk?).
Magic in Canavan’s world is a depletable resource, with the industrial revolution using up magic faster than it can be replenished. In this way, Canavan explores broader issues of environmental degradation and reliance on non-renewable energy sources. The comparisons are a bit heavy handed at times, but only slightly so.
This thread of the story revolves around Tyen, a young student in the Academy, a combination university and explorers club. He is practiced in the magical arts as well as archeology, and hopes to escape his poor beginnings by graduating and making his fortune. All that changes when he comes into the possession of a sentient book, and finds himself on the run, chased by the Academy and his former mentor.
This storyline also explores issues of imperialism and colonisation, with Tyen’s slow discovery of the wider world outside the Empire while he is on the lam.
The second thread of the story is set on another world that is poor in magic. It follows the adventures of Rielle, who can sense magic but is forced to pretend she can’t. Only the priesthood is allowed to use magic, and they have a “no women allowed” policy. People found using magic are punished, quite severely. Rielle is from a rich, upwardly mobile family that is part of the merchant class. The story follows her as she battles with discrimination caused by her gender and is looked down on by her more aristocratic “friends”. At the same time she is in a position of privilege in her society, and the book explores her engagement with the “lower classes” and her slowly growing defiance of the wishes of her family.
The book interrogates gender issues in an interesting and sympathetic way, and shows a sophisticated take on how you can be both oppressed and privileged at the same time.
Both threads have good pacing, engaging characters and an interesting plot. Canavan is an experienced and masterful storyteller, and that expertise shows in how smoothly the book reads. Highly recommended.
I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.