Gotta Serve Somebody
By Kate Elliott
Kate Elliott’s 2022 Servant Mage is a standalone (thus far) secondary universe fantasy novella.
Having led the Liberationists to victory over the corrupt monarchy, the August Protector then centralized government on herself, the better to provide society with the moral guidance it so desperately needed. Subjects found themselves firmly guided towards roles that best suited their strengths and guided away from distractions (like literacy) that could only confuse them. In the eyes of the Protector, utopia has been achieved. For some inexplicable reason, a handful of malcontents persist in resisting the correct social order.
Fellian, for example, is not merely unhappy that her magic was used to justify making her an involuntarily indentured servant AKA a slave. She secretly teaches people to read, something that could get her hanged if she were ever caught. Events will transpire such that illegal literacy will be the least of her crimes.
A well-born man comes looking for Fellian. Fellian is a lamplighter, a fire mage. The visitor, content to let Fellian call him Your Eminence, has a pressing need for a lamplighter. He is therefore willing to make Fellian a sweetheart deal that will see her free of her master and well-to-do as well. Despite misgivings, Fellian agrees.
Once it is far too late, Fellian discovers that her new employer has arranged matters such that her former master thinks she ran away. Fugitive servant mages face strict punishment, so now Fellian is highly motivated to stick with her new employer, because he can protect her. Or at least should protect her.
Even more alarmingly, Fellian discovers that the group into which she has been recruited has one of each kind of mage: earth, air, water, fire, and aether. A quintet of mages armed with the full range of elemental magics is a powerful combination. It is thus quite illegal.
A final capital crime: Fellian has been tricked into joining the Monarchists, who as their name suggests are determined to restore the monarchy. The August Protector maintains a very long list of capital crimes; flagrant monarchism is in the top five.
Three capital crimes! But it’s not as if Fellian could be hanged more than once.
Fellian’s new employer claims to want her skills for a good cause, one that amounts to emergency rescue services. As one might expect, other needs come to the fore.
A natural calamity occurs, one that heralds the birth of a child who will be able to wield all five elemental magics. This child who could be an invaluable tool for the Monarchists… if they can reach it before the August Protector has it killed as a danger to the state.
And provided it does not occur to the August Protector to use the child as bait for a cunning trap.
While it would not be surprising if one inspiration for this was the Roundheads vs the Cavaliers, there are more differences than similarities.
Aside from being a power-hungry jerk, the August Protector is motivated to act as they do because they believe that magic is inherently demonic. Each mage bonds to an elemental. These elementals, the Protector claims, are actually demons. There’s some evidence for this claim: some elemental entities are predatory and kill the humans they infest. But there’s no evidence that this is the case for all mages. However, the August Protector just happens to be immune to elemental bonding. This, she believes, is due to her sterling character. It follows, therefore, that mages must be of tainted character; they are to be relegated to near-slave status, rather than being killed off, because they are useful.
Having made it very clear why someone might be unhappy with the August Protector, the novella then rather unusually proceeds to paint her opponents the Monarchists in less than entirely flattering terms, particularly where the matter of ends and what means they justify is concerned. Nuance! In a fantasy novel!
The Monarchists are keen on a restoration of the old order. Some of them will admit that the old regime had issues, but assert the new monarch was just on the verge of reforming everything. To quote Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well he would, wouldn’t he?”
“Everything sucks and everyone is corrupt” is popular these days. As it turns out, that’s not where Elliott takes her tale. I found this twist even more astonishing than her lack of enthusiasm for either flavour of authoritarianism on offer.
The work’s main flaw is brevity. Only Fellian is really fleshed out. Other characters are more impressionistic. Aside from that, this is an enjoyable well-crafted piece I enjoyed. I just hope the author finds time to revisit the setting at greater length.
Servant Mage is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).