Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald are among the best SF&F authors working today. They write books filled with great characterization, excellent adventure, and have a way of combining space opera, mysticism, fantasy elements and romance in a way few other authors can match. Their “Mageworlds” series, which has run to seven books, is excellent and rousing; that all seven books — now including books six and seven — are available in e-book format is something worth cheering about.
Book Six, which starts 500 years prior to the events depicted in THE PRICE OF THE STARS (book 1), is THE STARS ASUNDER. It features Arekhon “‘Rekhe” Khreseio sus-Khalgath sus-Paladaen, the younger son of the huge Paladaen fleet family. Due to familial obligations, Rekhe ends up serving on one of the family ships before he takes up his life’s work — Magery — and meets the love of his life, Elaeli Inadi, in the process.
‘Rekhe, you see, has a powerful destiny — he’s the “”Professor,” whom we meet up with in book one, dies in book two, and is referred to many times in book three — but as a young man, he’s pretty much like any other young man you’ve ever met. His interests may be a bit more esoteric than most, as he’s a Mage who sees the eiran (more or less the electrical currents of life than bind all living things in various ways), but when this book starts, ‘Rekhe has no idea that he’ll live a very long time, that he’ll end up on the other side of the galaxy entirely, or that he’ll eventually have to leave his family behind.
At any rate, THE STARS ASUNDER deals with the set-up and workings of the Demaizen Circle — Demaizen is famed in the Mageworlds, even five hundred years later, because Demaizen’s head Mage (or First of the Circle, as they’d have it) Garrod is a famous Void-walker. Mageworld ships transit the Void slightly differently than do their counterparts across the galaxy as they follow the Void-marks set by various Mages — and Garrod is the most famous of them all, a noted explorer who’s done more to advance Mageworld space than anyone. And because Mages find worlds blindly — basically by going to the Void, walking for a time, and going wherever the mood strikes them (as the eiran cannot be viewed within the Void) — it’s obvious that traveling long distances is difficult, painful, and fraught with peril.
This is why Garrod’s Circle is made up of the most powerful Mages Garrod could find. ‘Rekhe is Third in Garrod’s Circle of ten (ten being a large amount for a single circle), and for the most part what he does is similar to what mystics do in any culture at any time. Where ‘Rekhe’s abilities differ — where all Mages’ abilities differ — is that the workings of the Mages require power; the more difficult the working, the greater the power required. And the Mages gather power in a way that newcomers to the Mageworlds series may find offensive — they are blood mages.
Now, what redeems the Mages is this — they use the power raised by fighting amongst themselves for peaceful means, at least in this point in their history. Mages consent to fight; they know it’s possible that a great working will require a death (or more), and they accept this as the price of their power.
This is borne out early by one of Demaizen’s other Mages, a very strong woman named Narin. Narin worked as the First of her Circle on a fishing trawler; due to a storm, the only way to get her boat back home safely was to fight all the other mages in her circle of four, and use their death-energy to save the rest of the crew (and most, if not all, of their catch). Narin and her Circle know the price of this working; all consent to it, and Narin knows that she could fall — in fact, she expects to fall. But when she doesn’t, Narin refuses to work on a fishing boat again and ends up at Demaizen instead.
The adventures ‘Rekhe and the other members of Garrod’s Circle go through as they attempt to get across the Void to find more viable worlds are rousing, interesting, and extremely moving — especially when ‘Rekhe’s old friend Elaeli ends up being one of the officers-in-charge of the ship which ends up going to the edge of the galaxy. And the Mages may find that getting to Entibor — as that’s the world Garrod found — may be far easier than returning to their own culture . . . .
Next up is book 7, A WORKING OF STARS. Garrod’s working still is not complete, which is why Llannat Hyfid — one of the most intriguing characters from the original three books of “The Mageworlds” — has come back in time to help ‘Rekhe and the other surviving members of the Demaizen Circle finish it up. Llannat goes by Maraghana, which is easier for ‘Rekhe and the others to say, even though this book starts out on Entibor and even though it’s been ten solid years since the events depicted in THE STARS ASUNDER.
Of course, things are still a mess. The Mageworlds themselves have actually devolved in some ways; they have become much more violent as lesser noble families are ending up either eliminated or absorbed, and the Mages themselves are having much more difficulty keeping themselves away from politics.
That said, the adventures of Elaeli (now Elela Rosselin — yes, one of the forebears of Beka Rosselin-Metadi, the heroine of the first three books, along with Beka’s mother, Perada) are probably the easiest to follow, but have the least “screen time.” That’s not a weakness, mind you, but it does mean that you shouldn’t read this book unless you’ve read book 6 or you’re likely to get extremely lost.
Overall, much more is learned about ‘Rekhe, his family, and the structure of the Mageworlds. There’s still a great deal of action here (though much of it centers around lesser characters), there certainly are people here to root for (‘Rekhe and most of the survivors of Demaizen, Elaeli, etc.) and against (‘Rekhe’s nasty brother), and the political and spiritual worldviews make sense.
But as I said before, this is a book you really won’t get the most out of if you haven’t read, bare minimum, THE STARS ASUNDER. And because of the huge amount of backstory here — necessary backstory, granted — this is a book that moves more slowly than any other in the seven-book series.
Finally, if you haven’t read the first three books of the Mageworlds series, you won’t understand why Llannat Hyfid does anything in this book. Llannat is a much more sympathetic figure in the first three books; by this time, she’s a mature woman, secure in her powers, and she barely thinks about the more onerous duties she must face as the greatest Mage of all the Mage Circles (meaning she has to sacrifice people, when needed, for the good of the galaxy — granted, she only sacrifices those who consent). And because she doesn’t think about it, much of her actions seem opaque, even to long-term readers like myself (THE PRICE OF THE STARS came out in 1992) . . . as it stands, Narin ends up standing in as a compassionate figure for much of this novel rather than Llannat, and while I liked Narin, that really isn’t what she should’ve been there to do — or at least that wasn’t all she should’ve been able to do.
All that said, these are both very, very good books that I’m happy to recommend without reservation. Most SF&F readers will enjoy these novels a great deal if they keep that one aspect — the fact that the Mages do blood magic — in mind.
Grades: THE STARS ASUNDER — A-plus.
A WORKING OF STARS — B-plus.
— reviewed by Barb