In Magebane, the debut novel from Lee Arthur Chane, a tiny magical kingdom is locked off from the rest of the world by a centuries-old impenetrable wall of magic. The mages and their people believe everything outside the barrier is pure wilderness, and for those living outside it, magic has been reduced to myths and legend. As a young aeronaut flies over the barrier from the outside, and parties scheme to bring down the barrier from the inside, both ways of life cannot remain unchanged.
In a meeting of steampunk and magic, Magebane is more about the plots and machinations of the people involved than the whiz-bang-neato potential of the world elements. This is not a bad thing – the steampunk elements are basic, and while the basics of magic are cool, they’re not enough to carry the story. The characters, however, are.
The slowly-unfolding plot gradually reveals layers of intrigue, manipulation, and hidden agendas from the mage side of the world. Various parties are working to bring down the barrier – each for their own diverging purposes – and all are perfectly fine with a healthy dosing of murder, torture, and/or mass slaughter to get there.
In fact, for a story of violence and massive political upheaval, the pacing is almost leisurely. It didn’t drag, just took its time with descriptions and worldbuilding to make sure that each action was in complete, full context to bring the reader along with all possible implications.
So, what’s inside:
Schemes upon schemes tied up in other schemes, with very few people to be taken at face value
Complex evil characters who are absolutely convinced they’re doing the right thing and that this death/destruction/torture/etc will all be worth it for a higher cause.
Steampunk technology, and magic that at times acts suspiciously steampunk-like (swap a few cogs and coals for magic, and leave the rest intact). Both of them get lush descriptions and beautiful execution.
A complex social and political system, built on top of a complex magic system, all of which make perfect sense together. The worldbuilding is thorough and well done.
What’s not inside:
A fast-paced page turner. This book takes its time, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But if you want a political thriller, this isn’t the speedy read you’re looking for.
An unexpected ending. But the path to get to the expected ending is a fun enough read that it doesn’t really matter.
A kick-in-the-pants beginning. Chane does a lot of worldbuilding up front, which is a bit slow in the beginning of the book. Some of it, in my opinion, could have waited until a bit later.
TL/DR: A pretty book with that takes its time as evil characters unfold their plans and subterfuge, less about the meeting of steampunk and magic and more about what nasty people with power are scheming to do about it.