Liz Bourke Reviews Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Servant Mage, Kate Elliott (Tordotcom 978-1-250-76905-3, $19.99, 176pp, hc) January 2022. Cover by Tommy Arnold.

Kate Elliott is perhaps best known for her epic fantasy, though her most recent novel, Unconquered Sun, opens a whole new space opera universe. (It tells a story that’s just as epic.) Her work is characterised by a deep and substantial interest in the details of world and culture, in power and the problems thereof, and in the difficulties of revolution. Servant Mage is an unusually short work for Elliott, a novella clocking in at a slender 165 pages, but nonetheless it feels like an entire epic somehow fits in this small space. Or a snapshot of one, at least: a self-contained episode in a vast and interestingly peopled world.

Fellian is an indentured servant and also a fire mage whose magical education has been deliberately stunted by the Liberationists who, since the overthrow of the monarchy, have ruled her nation. Her parents taught her to read, before their arrest for sedition – they were freethink­ing sorts, disinclined to support any authority’s restriction on knowledge and organising.

The unpleasant daily grind of her existence as a lamplighter for an expensive inn is inter­rupted by a group of Royalist mages. Counter-revolutionaries, adherents of the old order, they essentially kidnap her, since she’s got no real ability to refuse and, once she goes with them, no ability to go back if she changes her mind. The Royalists – led by a man who introduces himself only as the captain – need her to help rescue comrades trapped in caves and mines to the north. The group the captain has assembled has a certain magical significance, a ‘‘five-arrow quiver,’’ comprising a water mage, an air mage, an earth mage, a fire mage (Fellian), and the captain himself, an aether mage: all the ele­ments together.

This mission is soon postponed when the captain learns of the birth of a magical child, a potential Royalist heir born with an affinity for all of the elements. The Liberationist rulers kill such children as soon as they are found, and Fellian now finds herself part of a desperate rush to the rescue and a showdown with Liberationist forces – and afterwards, the original mission still to do. A sense of history and depth suffuses the confrontation between Fellian’s ‘‘captain’’ and the Liberationists’ ‘‘August Protector,’’ giving weight and personality to an ongoing ideologi­cal conflict.

The Royalists are interested in Fellian because she’s a mage, because she’s useful and potentially powerful. Though in their ranks she’s treated better than she was as an indentured servant among the Liberationists, the hierarchy of power among the Royalists is still blatant, oppressive, stifling. Should Fellian choose the system that values her more but still deprives other individu­als of their personhood? Could she ever choose the Liberationists? Finally given the opportunity to choose, Fellian opts for a third way, quixotic and personal but one that doesn’t uphold oppressive systems of power.

Servant Mage is an adventure story in an epic, lush, vivid world, with a compelling character – and compelling dilemmas – at its heart. Its argument is about power and loyalty: who has it, who deserves it, and what you should do with it. Not put it in the service of abusive systems: that’s a pretty clear conclusion. I enjoyed this novella a great deal, and with its snapshot of concerns and themes that run through much of Elliott’s oeuvre, it makes for an excellent and brief introduc­tion to her body of work.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.

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One thought on “Liz Bourke Reviews Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

  • March 26, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    I’m looking for shorter fiction and after having read “Unconquerable Sun”* this absolutely just got placed on my TBR.


    *Her calling it an “absolute unit” of a space opera sold me on that book. It is! And it was good. Just…having issues completing novels in three weeks, so novellas are more my speed right now.


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