This review contains spoilers.
I first read Angie Sage’s Magyk when I was – fourteen? I quite liked it. Enough to buy two sequels, and enough to reread it over the Christmas holiday this year.
Set in a kinda-old-timey fantasy world populated by wizards, witches and a malevolent force called (with great imagination) Darke Magyk, it’s centred on two young people: Jenna, the youngest child of seven in a family full of boisterous boys; and Boy 412, a child conscripted at birth into a dystopian military regime. Fairly early on, it becomes apparent that Jenna has a Hidden Identity: the daughter of the murdered Queen, she’s the heir to the throne of the city where she’s grown up, and therefore a target for the bureaucratic regime that replaced the monarchy (which regime is backed by, of course, Darke Magyk – specifically a sorcerer named DomDaniel). In a Shakespearean twist towards the end of the novel, it turns out that Boy 412 also has a hidden identity: he is the seventh son of Jenna’s adopted family, the Heaps. His father Simon also being a seventh son, lowly abused Boy 412 is actually himself an extremely powerful sorcerer. Much of the plot of Magyk concerns Jenna: her flight and concealment from DomDaniel and his various minions, accompanied by various members of her family and by Boy 412, plucked by circumstance out of his life of neglect and abuse.
So – what do I think about this novel? In a nutshell: it’s doing some unusual/progressive things generically, but those things are rooted in a suspect ideology. Also, Sage’s writing isn’t brilliant and the world she’s constructed doesn’t really cohere. More on that last below. Maybe.
Let’s start with that suspect ideology. The two Chosen One plots rest on the idea that Jenna and Boy 412 are special simply because they were born that way – not because of anything they’ve worked to achieve or acquire. In particular, Boy 412’s history is problematic because it raises questions about all the other child soldiers left behind by the Plot. Are they less worthy of the love and companionship Boy 412 finds among the Heaps because they don’t share his illustrious heritage, his innate magical powers?
And: this is a novel that, like a lot of fantasy novels, feels fiercely opposed to the efficiencies of modernisation? The dead Queen is portrayed as gentle, just, kind, in contrast to the cruelties of the new bureaucratic regime, with its coldly mechanised organisational structure, processes, departments. This is an utterly useless way of framing the world. Yes, too much bureaucracy can kill good governance stone dead, but so can too little. If there are no checks and balances, just the whims of a single person (however well-meaning, just, kind, impartial) – that’s literally tyranny.
And yet. I do appreciate how female this novel is. Stories about hereditary power often function as ways of perpetuating the patriarchy, especially in medieval-style fantasies like this one. There’s little suggestion of that here: this monarchy is a matriarchy; Jenna’s father is a random trader whose identity is completely irrelevant. There are plenty of strong, interesting female characters, too: Sarah Heap, loving and capable mother of seven children; Marcia Overstrand, fashion-focused ExtraOrdinary Wizard, extremely powerful and influential; Aunt Zelda, a White Witch who’s into alternative medicine and who’s also a terrible cook. It’s these women who I think of when I think of Magyk. In a genre severely lacking in fascinating, varied women, they’re a breath of fresh air. Even 12-year-old Jenna gets a whole load of agency, going exploring on her own, defending herself and her family.
That’s another thing that’s nice about Magyk: its focus on family, both biological and found. Unlike a lot of children’s fantasy, there are always adults around, caring for the children in their various different ways, while allowing them to explore their world and develop their own personalities and priorities. These are kids with loving families – even Boy 412 finds a place with the Heaps – who want the best for them. I feel like it’s important to have stories about communities who care about each other, rather than just an endless glut of tales about children who have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
As for the actual experience of reading Magyk – well, here’s the thing. Sage’s fantasy world makes literally no sense. The technology is medieval, supplemented by magic, but they have chocolate. And a postal service. And snakeskin shoes? It all feels suspiciously hygienic. But – the details of everyday life are realised so vividly, so warmly, that it almost doesn’t matter. Reading Magyk is like sinking into a warm bath. It’s comforting, not challenging, reading. But we all need the consolation of fiction sometimes.