Arsalan the Magnificent
by J. E. Tolbert
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Pub Date 13 Feb 2024 | Archive Date 13 Feb 2024
Arsalan the Magnificent is a lighthearted but poignant novel of historical fantasy fiction. In Europe and the Ottoman Empire of the early 19th century, a profession of wizards known as magical architects have achieved wealth and fame as builders of fantastical structures. Facing disgrace after his newest and greatest work collapses, Arsalan Ozdikmen, a renowned Ottoman magical architect in the prime of his career, is exiled to the Balkans. There, he undergoes a journey of reckoning and recovery, and finally redemption, when he is called to the aid of a young Bavarian princess.
Average rating from 3 members
Inventive magic, fun characters, excellent historical research, this was a wonderfully unexpected surprise that I absolutely adored! Fantastic work!
This is the second book I've read this year which includes a character talking about how important it is to take the greatest care over your craft and do the best job possible, the other being Casey Blair's Royal Tea Service , and ironically, both books are in need of a great deal more polish. This one I received pre-publication via Netgalley for review, so it's barely possible that it will receive that polish, though there's so much work to do that I think it's probably still going to be rough even if it gets a thorough going over by a highly skilled editor.
The main problem - apart from the author (like most authors these days) not knowing when not to use a coordinate comma in a list of adjectives - is that the author is setting out to write in a somewhat elevated style, and very much does not have the vocabulary to pull it off. Sometimes he just uses the wrong homonym, like "reigns" for "reins," but sometimes he uses a word to mean something it simply doesn't mean, or makes up a word by changing parts of speech even though there's already a different word for that, like "indignance" for "indignation". Quite frequently he just types the wrong word by accident, and spellcheck doesn't pick it up because what he typed is an actual word, just not the word he meant. There are also a number of places where the syntax goes a bit awry, or the wrong preposition gets used, or a word gets repeated, like saying that a place was "staffed with... staff".
It's set mainly in Europe, apparently in the late 18th century, based on the general feel of the political geography and the technology, but there are a number of anachronisms: not only the use of crossbows alongside rifles for some reason, but several 19th-century concepts or terms or bits of knowledge, like the protagonist's daughter knowing that bones are made of calcium. Places are sometimes given their present-day names rather than their historical names, like Czechia rather than Bohemia. At one point, a lake is given a name it's only held since 1962 (according to the Wikipedia lookup function on my Kindle). It is an alternate world, which I suppose could justify some anachronisms, though personally I suspect they're just errors.
In this world - and here is what drew me to the book - people who are born with an ability to work magic are all trained as magical architects, turning their powers to the erection of wondrous structures. They swear an oath never to harm anyone with their powers, which becomes an important plot point. I liked this a lot; I've often thought that if magic was real it would be turned to engineering and civil works a lot more often than it is in fiction, and this book gives us that.
It also gives us a compelling story of a man who, when his greatest magical work collapses on the day of its opening, collapses along with it. He loses most of his wealth, his wife leaves him, and his children have either already left (the sons) or disappear, fleeing from a psychotic suitor (his daughter; his search for her drives part of the plot). This crisis gradually brings him, and eventually through him his colleagues, to reassess their lives and their work and become better people.
It's a positive and hopeful book, in that just about everyone (with a couple of exceptions, who are presented as psychopaths) is a person of good will, though they all make mistakes and have realistic weaknesses, which they ultimately admit. While this isn't necessarily fully realistic to human nature in either the late 18th century or today, it makes for an enjoyable story. (There is a turn towards some dark vengeance at the end from one character, though, even if it is a form of justice.) The character work and the emotional arc are sound, in fact excellent, and if the previously mentioned issues weren't so very prominent it would deserve to be in at least the Silver tier of my annual recommendation list, with aspirations to Gold. Poor execution at a sentence level drags it down to Bronze, though.