Chris's Reviews > The Wizard's Son

The Wizard's Son by Kathryn L. Ramage
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's review
May 22, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy
Read in May, 2011

The British folktale of Childe Rowland has had a lasting influence on English literature. The youngest of three brothers, Rowland has to rescue his sister and his elder brothers from the King of Elfland following Elen's disappearance, Persephone-like, chasing a ball. With an enchanted sword he manages to track the King to his enchanted castle (also known as the Dark Tower) and defeat him. A few lines from a ballad ("Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came...") re-appeared in Shakespeare's King Lear, the narrative also furnishing the plot to John Milton's Comus and becoming the inspiration for Browning's famous poem, and finally in the 21st century the elements of plot, name and relationships re-appear, I believe, in Ramage's The Wizard's Son to help elucidate what is otherwise a very puzzling story.

Young Orlan (related to the name Orlando, the Italian form of Rowland) is, on the death of his mother, brought up by a nurse called Ellan as heir to his natural father, the wizard Lord Redmantyl, in a castle called Wizardes Cliff. Here, as Chyelde Orlan, he in due course becomes an apprentice wizard to his father due to his innate magical abilities, learning, for example, how to create and control a magical orb. These elements, along with Orlan's connection with the young woman Alen, have clear echoes of the Childe Roland chante-fable. The general direction of the plot too points to conflict with and challenges to his father, the equivalent of the King of Elfland of the folktale, along with sibling rivalry over his younger foster brother Andemyon, rather as Roland seeks to succeed in rescuing Elen where his brothers did not.

Noting at some length the parallels with Childe Roland (and there are other links with folktale motifs, such as the Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Prodigal Son) seems to me important in trying to make sense of The Wizard's Son. On the face of it, this narrative strand of applied magics is almost incidental to the human tale of a troubled young man who wants to know the truth about his origins, wants to experience and experiment with life while resisting parental constraints, and acts at times as wilfully as any spoilt brat. Knowing that this novel is part of a series and that there is more to be revealed makes it easier to complete this heavy-on-details story of what can be at times an unsympathetic protagonist.

Another pleasing aspect of Ramage's book is the creation of an alternate history of the Western World, one where events have diverged from our history at some point soon after the Norman conquest of England but where magic is a given. The action is set on a barely recognisable Long Island in a 20th century where medieval European customs, beliefs and technologies still hold sway, but with some differences: women, for example, seem to have more equality than their counterparts in the High Middle Ages of our world. I'm not sure that, even with the reactionary Church and State apparatus that Orlan's 20th century is subject to, polities and scientific developments would remain so unevolved, but with someone of Ramage's academic background there is nevertheless the detailed and informed effort that has gone into the imaginative re-creation of chronology, manners and language (the use of the genitive singular in placenames, for instance) to project a consistent view of Orlan's world which I find both impressive and compelling. However, I regret that the map provided is less than useful in pinpointing locations, especially those mentioned but not marked, and in lacking scale and clarity it scarcely adds anything to what a careful reader can't already glean from the text.

There is no doubting that Ramage has achieved a believeable universe where magic is real even if of secondary consideration, and there is absolutely no question that she has successfully peopled this universe with credible if flawed human beings. There is a strong sense, though, that there are unresolved threads which, one must guess, will be picked up and followed in sequels (or even prequels). I look forward to reading them and immersing myself again in Redmantyl's world of the Northlands.

* Complimentary review copy

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