If you write about a quest to deliver a magical object to a far-flung destination and thereby save the world from evil, you had better be up to the challenge, for your brave travelers unwittingly toil in the shadows of Frodo and Sam. Thomas Oliver makes a credible foray into this formidable subgenre with Magic’s Heart. This novel’s would-be heroes are a close-knit family whose members each possess a distinct magical talent. Seventeen-year-old Aliya has an affinity for bodies of water and the creatures that inhabit them. Her twin brother Crick has highly developed outdoor skills honed through years of exploring. Their brother Yori, 11, has the most advanced abilities of anyone in the family – he can detect magic and read the thoughts and feelings of others. The remaining family members, including parents Orlando and Siu and grandmother Abetta, each have their own magical specialties.
Yet they live in a region in which magic has come to be suspect. The Darkness is gathering strength, and the leaders in the nearby city of Immelus rely on military might to protect the people of the region. Url, an elderly friend of the family who has dedicated his life to studying the origin of magic, believes that the only way to combat the Darkness is to find the Heart of Magic. After an arduous search of a subterranean cave, Url and the family members find the Heart, which turns out to be a gemstone approximately five feet in diameter. The group formulates a plan to deliver it to a legendary stronghold of magic, the city of Iala. There it would be incorporated into a magical torch on the Tower of Elliad. This torch, in theory, would be a weapon sufficient to defeat the Darkness. As Url explains,
“When the Heart brought Magic into our world, it also, unintentionally I believe – brought something else. Something far worse. A darkness from beyond our world and our understanding, attracted through the stars to the Magic of the Heart like a terrible moth to the light of a distant flame… it brought the horror around which the Black Wind exists. The true Darkness itself; ever hidden, ever unknown, ever terrible… Sometime after the first Magic was found, the first breaths of the Wind appeared. They started small and isolated, hovering around the borders of our world like wolves around a flock, picking off the weak and unwary. But over the years these breaths grew and came together in one vast storm, engulfing horizons and destroying towns and cities and their peoples within as quick as sound. And all the time it looked inwards, in towards the light. In towards the Heart, seeking it, craving it… The Heart is the key – the only key, beneath us this whole time – to ending the Black Wind! It is the one and only thing which can bring to us the peace our world has lived without for so long! The Heart is our freedom!”
But the group must brave hundreds of miles of wilderness, the Black Wind, and an assortment of other threats to reach their destination. They are joined on their quest by Tarryn, a young guardsman from Immelus, and Aulan, a mysterious, otherworldly outcast.
A quest can be a tedious thing, fraught with empty miles, bad weather, hunger, exhaustion, and often a growing tendency among the travelers (and sometimes the readers) to ask, “Are we there yet?” Magic’s Heart tames the inherent tedium of a long journey by revealing a fully realized world with its own geography, politics, and bestiary. The travelers encounter friends and foes along the way. They enter and quickly retreat from the dead city of Irraigon, devasted by the Black Wind years ago. They sojourn for a time in the Undervalleys, where an entire society dwells underground to avoid the perils of the encroaching Darkness. They meet up with waterfaeries, scarravers (ants the size of wolves, with deadly pincers), and stalkers, which are alchemically altered humans whose wailing paralyzes its hearers with terror.
Throughout their journey, the group struggles to understand the Heart’s capabilities and the role of magic in their world. Magic is not without its pitfalls. A recurring theme is corruption resulting from the lure of magic’s power. Tarryn describes to the others how the leaders of Immelus hoard information about magic: “Any knowledge that’s ever been passed down to the main of the City and the rest of the Heartlands has been sieved and corrupted a hundred times over by the Council… Anything which may benefit them in some way, either then or sometime in the future, they hold back for themselves. There’s so many centuries of history and secrets hidden within the City, they’ve probably forgotten half of it themselves…”
This novel is intended to be the first in a series called The Núminway Chronicles. There is much to admire in this ambitious opening installment. The author has clearly lived and breathed the world he describes for a very long time, imagining it down to the smallest detail. There are grand concepts and epic struggles, and it’s apparent that much more remains to be revealed about this world in the coming volumes.
The execution, however, is not flawless. Parts of the novel dragged. The chapters describing the search for and retrieval of the Heart of Magic from the cavern are a prime example of this. Another quibble I have is with the character of Yori. He is characterized as possessing the greatest magical talent of anyone in the family, yet he spends significant stretches of time withdrawn and afraid, brooding silently on the growing danger instead of making himself useful. To put it bluntly, I found him annoying. Finally, some of the prose was a bit challenging because of word choice, punctuation, and sentence construction. I think a good editor could make a profound difference.
When the travelers finally reach Iala, the novel really takes off. These final chapters are the strongest in the book. They introduce the most memorable secondary characters, culminate in a satisfyingly cataclysmic conclusion, and effectively set the stage for the sequel.