Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Spirit Lens!

Our book today is Carol Berg's richly imagined 2010 fantasy novel The Spirit Lens: A Novel of the Collegia Magica, the first adventure of failed sorcery clerk Portier de Savin-Duplais, a young librarian (though not as young - or as distractingly pretty - as the elfin character on the book's eye-catching cover) at the last collegia magica in the kingdom of Sabria.

Portier is a true believer, but he's a few centuries too late; Sabria is in the boom of its own renaissance, and the magical lore so carefully accumulated and catalogued by his library is increasingly being seen as just so much mumbo-jumbo. Portier gets a little lecture on this very topic from no less a figure than Sabria's sovereign, King Philippe de Savin-Journia, a distant kinsman of our hero:
"I don't believe in magic, Portier. For most of my eight-and-thirty years, I have judged its practice entirely illusion, trickery, or coincidence. Alchemists daemonstrate every day that matter is not limited to sorcery's five divine elements. An opticum lens reveals that wood is not homogeneous, but is itself made up of water, air, and fibers. Water contains unseeable creatures and can be fractured into gaseous matter. Spark is but an explosive instance of heat and light and tinder. Similarly with air and base metal. Natural science brings logic  and reason to a chaotic universe. We have discovered more of truth in the past twenty years than in the past twenty centuries, stimulating our minds, benefiting Sabria and her citizens in innumerable ways. However, in this room, it pains me to confess, we find something different."

King Philippe has summoned Portier to investigate a murder at the royal court, a murder with distinctly magical overtones to it. To help her snarky, introspective protagonist solve this murder (a murder which, needless to say, quickly opens up into other and darker crimes), Berg creates a memorably delightful Odd Couple by teaming him with foppish clotheshorse and fumbling courtier Ilario de Sylvae, whose unwillingness to (inability to?) be introspective has him at gentle odds with his partner for the rest of the book:
Ilario's prattle dispersed my vision as the wind scatters feathers. But the pain lingered, and I could still smell the reek of blood and mortal panic. The scent of dry cedar never failed to rouse these persistent fragments of horror - memories of the day my father had tried to kill me, and I had killed him instead.

"Portier, are you quite well?"

"Yes, yes, I'm fine," I said, near breathless from a burgeoning headache. Half-sick, hands trembling and hot as if drenched in nine-year-old blood, I fought to lock away the cursed past like a stray book in its proper cupboard.

When I opened my eyes, Ilario wore an expression of drawn worry so at odds with his raked cap and dangling feathers, I had to smile. "All right, I am not fine," I said. "As with you, Chevalier, crypts and deadhouses give me the frights. Now, what were you saying about Soren?"

A friend of mine once remarked that today's extremely pricey paperbacks ($17 for The Spirit Lens when it first appeared in trade, $8 for this mass market paperback) make it impossible to walk into a bookstore's "new fantasy/sci-fi" section and simply take chances on a handful of books, as was once possible when they were reasonably priced. Sadly, this is true - so it's all the more eagerly that I recommend a book that's actually still in print and in bookstores! Give The Spirit Lens a try: you'll enjoy it very much!

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