The Spirit Lens: Carol Berg

★★★

A Novel of the Collegia Magica: Book I

Portier de Savin-Duplais used to dream of being a great sorcerer, but reality has an unfortunate habit of failing to meet expectation. Instead, he has become the librarian of the great magical college that teaches other, more successful mages: a sober, scholarly, slightly unfulfilled man past thirty and wondering what more life has to offer. And then, one day, he receives a message from his distant cousin, the King of Sabria, asking for help. Someone has attempted to assassinate the king, leaving behind terrifying proof of a power that breaches the bounds of magical heresy. The King fears a second attempt and needs an agent: someone who understands magic; and someone he can trust. So, Portier finds himself thrust into a web of intrigue, danger and sorcery of the darkest kind.

Nor is Portier alone in his investigations. For his sins, he’s saddled with the flamboyant, flippant nobleman Ilario de Sylvae – half-brother to the King’s estranged wife, popinjay of the most insufferable kind, and allegedly the key to court circles. And he also has to find a mage of sufficient power to combat the dark knots of magic which they’re facing. Portier understands the construction of the magic, intellectually, but has no hope of doing anything practical with it. His mission is secret and he can’t trust anyone at the Collegia – who knows where the assassin is lurking, after all? – so he sets out to find a rogue mage. He unearths Dante: an irascible, solitary sorcerer whose ghastly manners are only just balanced out by a breathtaking magical power beyond anything that Portier has ever seen, which threatens to undermine all the teachings of the Collegia. Together, the three mismatched men plunge into the seething heart of court politics, in a race against time to unmask the would-be assassin before another attempt on the king’s life.

Where this book shines is in its rich context. Berg has created an intricate series of social, political and magical hierarchies and the real pleasure of the novel is in getting to know her world. Dante and Portier argue over the nature of magic, comparing the traditions of Collegia teachings to the raw, unfettered forces which Dante has learned to control – a pleasantly thorough, almost academic discussion which gives Berg’s magic a sound foundation in plausibility. Magic isn’t just there in this world: it’s a discipline with conventions and schools and mavericks. And it’s a discipline under threat from the natural scientists, who have won support from their sceptical king and who hope to push the charlatan sorcerers into the shadows where they belong. To make matters worse, the king’s support for enlightened science is set directly against the queen’s known fondness for sorcerers. Portier and his two companions are treading on dangerous ground.

Indeed, there are times when the world-building feels more important than the actual plot. The structure of the story is a little uneven and I got the feeling that Berg would have been much happier simply exploring the court than actually having to send her ‘heroes’ off on the inevitable quest. The action didn’t always flow as smoothly as it could have done; nor, I felt, was there enough of it to warrant a book of almost 500 pages. At times, the writing also felt a trifle uneven, as Berg chooses to use (through her narrator Portier) an old-fashioned idiom. Usually it works, but sometimes you feel the need to find your way through with a ball of string. It really is an odd book, actually. Objectively the writing is good; the world-building rich and imaginative; the characters of Ilario and Dante have, by the end, become intriguing (though I would’ve liked to see more of Ilario); but there’s something that doesn’t quite work for me. I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Has anyone else read Berg? I see that the sequel, The Soul Mirror, has slightly better ratings, so I may give that a chance one day, but do you think I might find any of her other series more congenial? I’ll be completely honest and say that I came to this via the cover, which I think is by the excellent Larry Rostant (the idea of Renaissance French magic appealed). As such, it was better than I had any right to expect, and it offers a more intellectual kind of fantasy than usual; but ultimately it’s a book that left me, in some curious way, fundamentally unsatisfied.

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9 thoughts on “The Spirit Lens: Carol Berg

  1. elainethomp says:

    I have read Berg, most of what she’s written. I liked this book – and sequels – better than you did. I thought the characters, worldbuilding and magic were all interesting. i don’t always like what she writes, but there’s always something interesting in it. In this trilogy each novel has a different narrator, and Portier, #1’s narrator continues to play a role.

    I wonder if you’d get on better with the pair focused on an artist – I didn’t like it, but family did – Overall title is The Santuary Duet, and individual titles are: Dust and Light, & Ash and Silver. One reason I didn’t like it much was it’s set in a previously used setting, and when I read it while remembering the previous work, I couldn’t make them fit together properly. But the narrator is a portraitist who got into serious trouble because his painting show truth. I only read volume 1, so don’t know how much a role his being a painter plays in the second. He was redirected in life at the end of the first.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Elaine! I just want to stress, as I did to Heloise, that I didn’t dislike this book. Three stars is a perfectly good, solid read and I appreciated the three aspects you pick out above. It just… didn’t quite *grab* me in the way that other novels have done. Your recommendation of the Sanctuary Duet sounds interesting, so maybe that’s something to look out for… as of course I wouldn’t be distracted by the setting having been used elsewhere. Thanks!

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    I’ve been ogling Carol Berg’s Lighthouse duology for the longest time, as that is supposedly her best work (and it’s only two volumes), but I’ve always felt tempted by this novel, too, because its description sounded extremely intriguing and right up my alley. A pity it appears to not quite live up to that promise, as Christmas is approaching which usueally means that I’ll dig out some fat big Fantasy novels to get lost in for a few weeks, and this trilogy would have been just the thing…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Please don’t avoid it on my account. It is good – it’s big and meaty and as I say the world-building is fantastic. Indeed, seen as the first part of a trilogy rather than a book in itself (which I didn’t know when I read it), the pacing may not matter so much. And it certainly sets up some very intriguing possibilities for the sequels. Remember: three stars isn’t bad, it’s perfectly good, solid stuff. I’d love to know what you think of it, especially the philosophical basis for how magic works and so forth.

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        This is all correct, but I have heaps of Fantasy novels already on my shelf, most of which haven’t gotten lukewarm reviews by people whose opinion I value, so while I might check this out eventually, I’m somewhat less in a hurry to do so now, not with Janny Wurts just having completed the penultimate arc of The Wars of Light and Shadow and John Crowley just having released a new novel… It’s the old problem of too many books and not nearly enough time. 😉

      • The Idle Woman says:

        We all have a similar problem, Heloise. 😉 Do you think Genji also counts as a big fat fantasy novel? Still planning to take it home to read over Christmas, but I’ll be reading it alongside Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde (a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe), so that’s going to create some interesting juxtapositions… 😀

  3. arethusarose says:

    I have read a fair amount of Carol Berg’s work and tend to find I like the first volumes in her series better than the last. It’s no different for the Collegia Magica series, and I think it has to do with how I feel about the central character of each book. Portier intrigues me in a lot of way; the woman in the second book – forgot her name – had a family and a story worth following. However, I was constantly irritated by Dante in that book, and the last one, centered on him, seemed forced as both an ending and a book trying to make the reader empathize with Dante. It strikes me that Berg is a lot better at world-building than plot development, and ultimately has a different taste to character structure than I do.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much for this interesting take on the rest of the series! I think your overall assessment of Berg’s abilities fits very well with what I felt at the end of The Spirit Lens. Portier certainly has a lot of potential: I was rather delighted by the idea of a librarian becoming the hero of an epic fantasy (and why not?!). Hmm. I think I might put the rest of the series onto my B list – worth reading on that hypothetical day in the future when I finish my A list. 😉

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