Book Review: Arcanum – Simon Morden

Arcanum

Morden’s Arcanum is a story of magic, power, and politics set in a fictional version of Carinthia. In this Carinthia, there is not only magic – hello epic fantasy – but also hexmasters, who wield said magic while aggressively dominating the political and martial landscape. (They also dominate the ‘creepiness’ category, but that’s a different story for a different day and, arguably, a different blog. I am, after all, a professional, and would not presume to comment on such a disreputable category).

It’s a story of power plays and intrigue, with a well-defined, well-established setting that has all the hallmarks of a fantasy novel – including but not limited to the occasional wayward unicorn, usually dead – and is a worthy contribution to the genre. It’s also well-structured, a very interesting read, and, last but not least, plays host to a number of impressively varied heroes, from a young Jewish girl to a scarred, jaded huntsman, without ever drawing seriously upon the bog-standard ‘tough guy’ persona.

There’s a lot of it – Arcanum is a large text – but at no point does it feel tedious, even if holding it up did make my wrist ache, and I don’t have weak wrists.

(Generally)

Plot:

At the beginning of Arcanum, a bunch of things happen. Most importantly, however – or, at least, most importantly from the perspective of the snappy little summary I’m about to provide you with, you lucky thing – magic vanishes, and, slowly but surely, it becomes obvious just how dependent Carinthia is on magic, as the entire Kingdom essentially grinds to a halt (including the library, which becomes the most significant problem, an aspect of the novel that pleased me greatly). The rest of the novel is then concerned with ‘what happens next, and the equally slow return to order, as orchestrated by the three aforementioned heroes (okay, so it’s not as snappy as it could be, but I think it works).

This isn’t a fast-paced novel, but that is to its benefit. Each scene is given just enough time for it to seem significant to the story and to the characters, and the action scenes, which are, arguably, extremely well-structured, are not prioritised over the equally important emotional scenes that are often pivotal in regards to character development, which can be rare when one is dealing with epic fantasy. Additionally, those scenes are varied in nature, structure, and length, and the level of detail applied to each ensures that they never grow tedious.

In fact, the same can be said for the novel in entirety, as it is a long read, but is a long, intriguing read comprised of several interlocking plot threads, all of which operate independently, but with clear links to the central narrative. It keeps the reader interested, keeps the story moving, and ensures that instead of one main character dominating, well, everything, there are many (who take turns. Perhaps they need a rota).

Characters:

This is undoubtedly an epic fantasy novel – well, Amazon agrees with me, and I’m inclined to agree with Amazon, the source of all knowledge when I was purchasing the books I needed for university – but one of the main characters is female, Jewish, and – now here’s the real shocker, so brace yourself – mortal. To generalise hugely – sorry – the female characters that turn up in epic fantasy novels are often magical or otherwise unusual, and are usually singularly attractive. But Sophia is human, completely involved in the human world around her, and is respected not for any alleged beauty, but because of her strength, intelligence, and bravery.

(If there’s a fan club, count me in).

Alongside Sophia stars Peter Büber, the scarred huntsman who has lost several fingers, and who exhibits, on several occasions, insecurities in regards to his appearance and himself in general, and Thaler, a librarian with an eye for inventiveness and who prefers books to, well, everything. At first glance, this is a markedly unusual group, and given that the novel doesn’t involve Thaler magically developing the ability to use a sword, or Büber excelling at anything and everything – his illiteracy is an important plot point on more than one occasion – alongside obtaining the interest of every woman in a fifty mile radius – even more so.

Final thoughts:

I was surprised by Arcanum. I hadn’t heard of Simon Morden before I read it – and I purchased it pretty much on a whim, because I tend to make somewhat erratic decisions when books of the new variety are involved – and I discovered about ten pages in, that I had definitely been missing out. Now that I’ve finished Arcanum, I’m looking into getting my (greedy) hands on several more of Morden’s books.

To conclude: I highly recommend Arcanum for any and every fan of epic fantasy and/or anything with a Kingdom and giants.

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