The Magicians Guild by Trudi Canavan

Recently, there has been much discussion of the feminine in fantasy.  The old stereotypes of  the teenaged boy-reader (or, more disturbing, the middle-aged man who still acts like a teenaged boy) who has an excellent grasp of Elvish but a very poor grip on his personal hygiene and the writer with superb facial hair but few social skills are on the wane.  Of course, the literate reader will object, they were never really true anyway: writers like Margaret Atwood and Diana Wynne-Jones have long been ensuring that the genre remains more than merely an exercise in puerile wish-fulfilment.  Moreover, the widespread appeal of the popular giants of the genre (such as Tolkein and Pratchett) gives the lie to claims about a readership restricted to minds stuck in adolescence.  Yet it is true that an increasing number of fantasy novels – especially in the YA sector – are both written by women and focusing on female characters.  Joining such recent successes as The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Throne of Glass,  Trudi Canavan's The Magician's Guild forms part of a growing trend to represent womanhood in other worlds.

et, although Canavan chooses to tell the story of Sonea, little is made explicitly of the fact that this central character struggling – like so many in YA fiction – to find herself and her place in the world is a woman.  Rather, the key obstacle she must overcome is that of her socio-economic background.  Sonea is a 'dwell': a member of the underclass of her city.  Alarmed by the fear of crime and disorder, the ruling class have instituted a yearly 'Purge' whereby all members of this class without economic utility are driven from the central citadel to live in shanty towns beyond the city walls.  Alongside more mundane soldiers, the agents carrying out this cleansing are members of the magical guild of the title.  Drawn exclusively from the aristocratic Houses of the privileged 'Inner Circle' of the city, they are shocked and shaken when this year's Purge sees one of their number magically counter-attacked by someone from the crowd.  The struggle to find that person and the decisions that must be made when they are found begin to erode old certainties and lead some members of the guild to question long-standing assumptions.

The novel is thus as much about the structure of society as one girl's struggle to find identity and acceptance.  Like all truly great fantasy writing, Canavan uses the elements of her fictional world to build an argument in critique of our own.  Too often, this is a use for fiction which can lack subtlety.  The reader can be left feeling as if he or she has been clubbed over the head with simplistic analogies and mundane metaphors.  Not so here.  The social patterns and codes of Sonea's world are carefully and skilfully shown to us, yet we are never treated as if unable to draw conclusions from those facts by ourselves.  Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the author captures perfectly the moral ambiguity of social division.  The oppressed poor – as deplorable as their oppression may be – are never wholly good and innocent, whilst the privileged few may often commit acts of seeming insensitivity with the most noble of intentions.  It is this realism which turns the novel from a simple tale of dispossession against privilege into a masterpiece of fantasy fiction.

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