A Distant Magic

Grade : C
Reviewed by Cheryl Sneed
Grade : C
Book type : Fantasy Romance
Sensuality : Warm
Review Date : July 14, 2007
Published On : 2007

A Distant Magic is Mary Jo Putney’s third, and final, Guardian novel. Guardians are mages, humans with magical powers who have pledged to use their magic for the good of humankind. While I enjoyed the first third of this novel with its intriguing leads and magic, Putney’s change of course into time-travel and history lessons lost me.

We meet Nikolai Gregorio as an orphaned street child in Malta when he tries to pick the pocket of the powerful Scottish mage, Macrae of Dunrath. Recognizing a powerful latent magic in the boy, Macrae offers to take him home to Scotland and foster him, training him how to use and control his gift. Their ship is attacked by Barbary pirates and in the ensuing battle, Nikolai is taken prisoner, believing that Macrae has betrayed him into slavery.

Nikolai has since gained his freedom and become a pirate himself, though one dedicated to freeing galley slaves, and he still nurses his anger toward Macreae. Desire for revenge against the man has been one of the driving forces in Nikolai’s life, and when he comes across Jean Macrae – daughter of his enemy – in Marseilles, the opportunity is too good to pass up, so he takes her captive, stowing her on his ship and sailing away.

Jean was in Marseilles to attend the wedding of some friends and is now at loose ends. After a wild youth where she ran away with her lover to fight with Bonnie Prince Charlie, she has settled a bit but feels restless, not knowing which direction she wishes to take with her life. She’s always had a difficult relationship with her magic. In an emergency, as when she led the men of her neighborhood home in the aftermath of Culloden, it is very powerful, but more often, much of her power is latent and so magic can be frustrating.

She feels a strong magical connection to Nikolai however, and admires his work in fighting slavery. She is able to get him to look past his bitterness toward her late father and acknowledge that what he has done in stealing her away from her family against her will is a very close cousin to the slavery he abhors. Together they combine their magic to defeat a storm in a very exciting scene, and afterwards he agrees to release her. They are at his island refuge for freed slaves while his ship is being repaired when they are visited by Adia, a woman from 35 years into the future, come to recruit them for a mission.

Snippets of Adia’s story are provided every few chapters. They detailed her life from when she was taken as a slave from her West African village, to her life on a West Indies sugar cane plantation, a move to the American colonies, her marriage, then eventual freedom and move to London. She and the magical Africans in London seek someone to travel through time to key moments in history to influence important events in the anti-slavery movement. Nikolai has the perfect motivation and this is just the cause to give purpose to Jean’s life.

I thought I was headed for a DIK as I gobbled up the first third of A Distant Magic. The tension between Jean and Nikolai was palpable, they both had their own past pains to work through, and their magical connection, enhanced by similar inability to control it at all times, added spice to the mix. And, once I got over wondering why the heck I was reading about Adia’s life, I enjoyed her story as well.

However, from the moment the three came together, the tenor of the novel changed, and not for the better. Jean and Nikolai are eager to go on the mission, but first they must be more in control of their own magic. For Jean this entails meditation and visualization, but Nikolai requires the lengthy and detailed initiation he missed out on as a child. And it was lengthy. I learned way more about how this brand of magic works than I ever wanted to know or that I needed to know to enjoy the story. It’s as if Putney were writing a how-to manual on magic and didn’t know when to stop. This section comprised the middle third of the book, and while parts of it were interesting, it was too much.

The last third of the book consists of time-traveling. Part of it felt purposeful to the story, but the rest was no more than a history lesson on the milestones of the anti-slavery movement in England. If Putney became too enamored of her own mythology before, here she gets lost in her research as each step is documented and we meet Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce and attend Parliament votes, most of which, I’m sorry to say, bored me, though I feel like a Philistine for saying so.

A Distant Magic was a disappointment – it started out with a bang, but each section of the novel became progressively less interesting until I was ready to stop reading long before I was done. I heard that Putney is going back to straight, non-magical historicals in the future. I was torn about that, for I’ve enjoyed her previous fantasy romances, but this book may have changed my mind.

Cheryl Sneed

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