The Mageborn Traitor

Like many fantasy readers of my generation, I was a big fan of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince and Dragon Star series back in the 90s. And when The Ruins of Ambrai, first volume in the Exiles trilogy, was published in 1994, I bought the hardcover edition as soon as it hit the shelves. Did the same when its sequel, The Mageborn Traitor, came out. Daunted by the proliferation of big fantasy series on the market, like I did with many other SFF sequences, I decided not to read them until the entire trilogy was done. Which turned out to be the right decision, for as most of you know, the final installment, The Captal's Tower, has yet to see the light. But now that Rawn is working on the third volume, it was time to give this series a shot.

According to the majority of the author's fans, Exiles is by far Rawn's best work to date. For that reason, I had lofty expectations when I finally sat down to read The Ruins of Ambrai. Other than her latest high fantasy series, The Glass Thorns, I've read everything she has written. Hence, knowing what she brings to the dance, far be it from me to doubt anyone's claim that this trilogy was Melanie Rawn writing at the top of her game. And yet, as I've mentioned plenty of times, expectations have a way to come back and bite you in the ass, and this is exactly what happened to me with that book.

After a confusing beginning and an uninspired few hundred pages, I had a feeling that The Ruins of Ambrai would be a total disaster. Absolutely nothing worked for me and this was by far the author's weakest novel that I had ever read. I should have known better than to throw in the towel, for Rawn came through with a captivating engame and an interesting finale. Sadly, it wasn't enough to save the book. It was not a complete loss, however, and I still wanted to read the subsequent volumes to discover what happens next. But even though it got better toward the end, The Ruins of Ambrai was plagued by too many shortcomings to be a satisfying reading experience in its own right. Given how much love this series has been getting over the years, one had to wonder if The Mageborn Traitor raised the bar to another level, for the first installment could not possibly warrant that much appreciation.

Unfortunately, The Mageborn Traitor doesn't raise the bar. If anything, it lowers it. To my dismay, this sequel suffers from all the flaws that nearly killed its predecessor, while adding yet more shortcomings to the list. And although my expections were nowehere near as high as they had been for The Ruins of Ambrai, this second installment was a major disappointment.

Here's the blurb:

The Mage Guardians have survived the war, barely. Now Mage Captal Cailet and her sister Sarra are struggling to rebuild their society, politically, economically, and magically. Yet though defeated, their ancient enemies, the Malerissi, have not been destroyed, and under the leadership of Cailet's and Sarra's sister Glenin, these masters of a darker magic are once again weaving a web with which to entangle the entire world. And even as Cailet's dreams of a restored Mage Hall become a reality, Glenin prepares to strike at the very heart of both her sisters' power…

Worldbuilding is an aspect in which Melanie Rawn habitually shines and to a certain extent that was the case with The Ruins of Ambrai. She created an intriguing matriarchal society and was in complete control of the genealogy and the convoluted history of her universe. Problem is, the presentation of everything left a lot to be desired. As far as the setting was concerned, the world and its people truly came alive through the author's vivid prose. But most of the information was conveyed to the reader through some massive info-dumps that really bogged down the narrative. Too often the reader was subjected to a barrage of names/family trees/family connections/history. This was as confusing as it was overwhelming, and made it quite difficult to keep track of everyone's loyalty and where they fit in the greater scheme of things. Sadly, in that regard things are even worse in The Mageborn Traitor. Especially considering that one family in particular breeds like vermin, the complicated genealogies are impossible to sort out. We are introduced to what feels like hundreds of men and women and children, most as forgettable as the next. As a fan of George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and Robert Jordan, I'm used to vast casts of characters. I have no problem keeping track of a huge number of protagonists and secondary characters. Trouble is, most of those introduced in The Mageborn Traitor have little or no importance as far as the plot is concerned. Which means that other than bewildering readers, they serve no purpose. To tell the truth, I started skimming through portions of the narrative in which Rawn introduced us to yet another batch of unimportant people early on and kept doing that throughout the book. Another disappointment stemmed from the fact that the author doesn't elaborate a whole lot on the way magic works, especially the Mage Globes, or on the Malerissi themselves.

Interestingly enough, you may recall that I didn't have any problem with the over-the-top matriarchal society and its ramifications until I got to the Selective Index at the end of The Ruins of Ambrai. When I learned the planet was colonized during what is referred to as the Second Great Migration by thousands of mainly Catholic settlers following a 7-year intergalatic voyage, things immediately went downhill. Since Rawn doesn't elaborate on any detail that could have explained the shift from a more patriarchal to a decidedly hardcore matriarchal society, all of a sudden one of the underpining elements of the series' backdrop lost most of its credibility and didn't make any sense anymore. Unfortunately, The Mageborn Traitor doesn't shine some light on this. Moreover, the gender role reversal occasionally gets even more ludicrous. Female readers have often condemned male authors, with good reason, for writing female protagonists that were little more than men with tits. For all that they were written by a woman, most female characters other than the three sisters definitely are like that. Even worse, most of the male characters are chicks with dicks, so to speak. I mean, no matter how emasculated they can be, to have male characters become absurdly frivolous fops who care about the colors of wallpapers and fabrics, trendy clothing, style, yada yada yada, while women are the only practical ones often felt ridiculous. Until Rawn explains just how Catholic settlers grew into a matriarchal society in which men have basically no rights, the entire backdrop of the Exiles trilogy will continue to make little sense.

As was the case with its predecessor, the political intrigue at the heart of The Mageborn Traitor is a bucket that doesn't always hold much water. The Council and the Assembly are ineffectual and at times dumb and naïve in a manner that defies comprehension. The politicking involved is often quite gauche in its execution. The great plan orchestrated by the Malerissi is too drawn out and takes too much time to come to fruition. Hence, what was meant to be one of the novel's most pivotal moments ends up being more than a little lackluster. The same can be said of the repercussions caused by Sarra's legal reforms. And the trial. . .

Characterization is usually a facet in which Melanie Rawn excels at. And though there were a few in The Ruins of Ambrai, for the most part the protagonists were not as engaging and interesting as I expected. Things go downhill in this second volume, which I didn't see coming. It's mostly due to the fact that both Sarra and Cailet, both of whom are supposed to be intelligent women, act absolutely stupid for plot purposes. Sarra, who supposedly has a knack for politics, shows incredibly poor judgement and no political or social savvy. Cailet, now Captal, is aware that a powerful Mageborn has been sent to murder her and destroy the Mage Guardians, that it is one of two potential suspects, and yet she does nothing to unmask him. Their combined stupidity leads to the destruction of all they hold dear and the death of countless loved ones. Given how smart they're supposed to be, this should never have happened. Trusting in old wards is no excuse for showing such poor judgement. Sarra and her sister Glenin continue to be two sides of the same coin. The former is over-the-top good, in that she wants to end poverty, inequalities, etc. Glenin, on the other hand, due to her upbringing is the polar opposite and is over-the-top evil and vicious. In the end, their being too much, one way or the other, makes it impossible to relate to either sister. The twins, approaching young adulthood, act like they're ten-year-olds and are nearly as annoying as their mother. The supporting cast is made up of a revolving door of forgettable characters that often bring little or nothing to the tale. All in all, I've never read anything that featured such a weak cast of protagonists by Melanie Rawn. All the main characters are insufferable and the incessant bantering between them often makes the book sound like a Friends episode.

In terms of rhythm, The Mageborn Traitor is an interminable slog. The last hundred pages or so see the pace pick up as we move toward the endgame. But it's a case of too little, too late. Once more, all the info-dumps, the poor political intrigue, the inexplicable stupidity of the main protagonists, and the occasional clumsy execution prevented this book from achieving its full potential. In The Ruins of Ambrai, Rawn closed the show with style and aplomb with an ending that promised a lot of good things to come. It's just that you had to go through a lot of extraneous material to get to the good stuff. The problem with this sequel is that you have to go through the same crap for hundreds of pages, only to find out that the ending is somewhat uninspired and not at all satisfying.

Now that all of the groundwork had been laid out, I was hoping that Melanie Rawn would return to form and that The Mageborn Traitor would be everything it could be. In my review, I opined that The Ruins of Ambrai was Rawn's weakest work to date. That was true then. Sadly, The Mageborn Traitor is no improvement and turned out to be the author's worst novel thus far.

A major disappointment. . .

The final verdict: 4/10

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