Her magic may be the only thing that can save a prince - and the Seven Kingdoms!
In a distant corner of the Seven Kingdoms, an ancient curse festers and grows, consuming everything in its path. Only one man can break it: Harkeld and Osgaard, a prince with mage's blood in his veins. But Prince Harkeld has a bounty on his head - and assassins at his heels. Innis is a gifted shapeshifter. Now she must do the forbidden: become a man. She must stand at Prince Harkeld's side as his armsman, protecting and deceiving him. But the deserts of Masse are more dangerous than the assassins hunting the prince. The curse has woken deadly creatures, and the magic Prince Harkeld loathes may be the only thing standing between him and death.
I read The Sentinel Mage within a few long luxurious sittings. It came in and I fell under the sway of the cover and soon I was swept off my feet into the world of The Seven Kingdoms.
It is traditional fantasy fare - shapeshifters, magic, princes, assassins, plagues, quests, undead things…you know, the usual. But what lifts it high above the mundane is Ms. Gee's excellent writing. I can't put my finger on it, but there is something incredibly readable about The Sentinel Mage. I think may have to do with the author's talent of scene setting and characterisation. We swoop in to be part of Prince Harkeld's party as they travel ever onwards, first to escape his father's soldiers as they run from the kingdom of Osgaard, then to escape assassins and various other creatures bent on killing the Harkeld before he succeeds in his quest.
Next we are party to Harkeld's half sister Britta's life in the palace. Britta is as much as a pawn in her father's game of expanding Osgaard as anyone else in the kingdom. She is pawned off to Duke Rikard (in charge of the army)as wife and it is not something she has any say over. Duke Rikard is as nasty a piece of work as Britta's father, the king. It is only through Britta's bondservant Yasma's clever thinking that Britta sustains her sanity following the short weeks after her marriage as she is basically raped several times a day by her new husband. I liked Britta, I loved her quiet but clever bondservant Yasma and I thought that Britta's armsman (bodyguard) Karel was wonderfully characterised.
The three of them form a valuable counter-point to Harkeld's travels with the mages. Even though Britta, Yasma and Karel are living in quiet opulence and luxury whilst Harkeld and the mages are travelling through some inhospitable terrain and seem to be in constant danger, you realise that it is actually Britta who is in greater danger throughout the novel.
Back to Harkeld who is in theory the main character. He is not at all happy with the situation he finds himself in. Like everyone else in the Seven Kingdoms he dislikes the mages, whom everyone seems to call witches. He has heard the rumours: they are dirty, animalistic creatures who rut with animals, who have no morals and who are one step away from being complete barbarians. Much to Harkeld's own horror, it is revealed that there is some mage blood in him - he was engineered to be The One to stop the curse spreading through the land. I'm not giving anything away as I state this, we learn this very early in the opening pages of The Sentinel Mage.
The things that Harkeld knows about the mages turn out to be lies, of course. And the author has a great time bursting the young prince's bubble as he travels with the mages and he comes to see them, not really as friends, there is too much animosity from his side, but as people to be trusted to a certain extent. He remains wary throughout the book and I loved this - there are several points in the novel where you really would like to shake him and tell him to get over himself. But he remains in character throughout the novel and when the catalyst comes it jars everyone in the small group, but especially Harkeld and we watch how this character who has struggled to hold onto what he knows is completely wrongfooted and his world breaks all around him.
But it is Innis, the youngest of the Sentinel Mages who is the one to watch. She does not say much and it is from the reaction of the other mages in the group that we realise how strong she is, how unique her abilities. She takes on the shape of Harkeld's armsman for most of the book but occasionally she is herself or a hawk, lion or even a dog, a lizard - basically whatever is required at the time. But the big thing is, Harkeld does not know that his armsman Justen is a mage - Innis and two or three of the other mages, take turns to turn into his armsman, to guard him. They chose to give him a "normal" bodyguard who sleeps in his tent with him and who is him and be with him at all times as they know how much he dislikes the mages. They fabricate a whole story about Justen's background and it is a credit to Innis and her mage colleagues who keep this facade up the entire time, especially during times of battle.
And there are deaths - and its not just the red-shirts that die either which I can commend. There is real menace throughout the novel, both from external threats as well as within Harkeld's group of mages. Harkeld, although he is literally the only one in their world who can stop this curse, is not universally liked by his guardians and there is a lot of conflict because of this.
Of course Britta's situation in the palace is awful as she uncovers some awful goings on herself and I rooted for her so much, it was unbelievable. I have no idea where Ms. Gee will be doing with Britta in books 2 and 3 but I hope she comes out on top, along with her armsman and servant. They are a great trio and I truly think they are my favourites in The Sentinel Mage.
There is a lot that goes on in The Sentinel Mage and I genuinely fell for the characters. I thought the plot and story was strong and the magic made sense. As the first book of The Cursed Kingdom trilogy it is rock solid and well written. Emily Gee is a fantastically talented writer that makes writing fantasy look easy.
The Sentinel Mage is released in February by Solaris Books. Do find Emily Gee's website here.