Given how well-established she is, I’m something of a latecomer to Trudi Canavan’s work. Right now, I’m in the middle of her Age of the Five trilogy, which is what’s prompted this post; I’ve also read her Black Magician trilogy, the prequel volume, The Magician’s Apprentice, and the two most recent novels in the Traitor Spy series, which is set in the same world. Full disclosure: Trudi is a friend, and a very lovely person. However, that is hardly a sufficient basis on which to recommend her work, so on the off chance that you, like me, have come late to the party, here are some more compelling reasons why you should give her a try.
One of the most omnipresent epic fantasy tropes is that of prophecy: the insinuation that moments of great social, political and magical change must always be predestined, their success contingent on the agency of either a Chosen One or a classic Five Man Band. Often, there’s a tendency for such characters to be defined by their destinies, such that the possibility of their choosing a different path is never really an option. In Canavan’s works, however, the element of prophecy is absent. The world still changes, and particular individuals often have a prominent say in how that comes about, but their success is never guaranteed, and frequently bittersweet. Instead, the emphasis falls on choice, consequences and conflicting cultures: the honest yet frightening idea that it is only ever people – unguided by higher powers – whose actions change the course of history. Often, characters are forced to question both their own traditions and those of their enemies, sans any sense of moral absolutism. In this context, change is not just an excuse to declare old systems tyrannies while lauding their replacements as infallible; rather, both characters and readers must front up to the idea that such distinctions, while instinctive and easy to make, are ultimately arbitrary.
Her conception of black magic is the perfect example of this. By using a terminology which has negative connotations not just in the world of Kyralia, but also in the minds of readers, Canavan forces us to reexamine one of the most basic biases of fantasy magic: the idea that using blood in rituals is always dark, dangerous and, by extension, morally unjustifiable. Given that black magic is an everyday part of enemy Sachakan life – and given, too, the hideous extremes to which its use is taken – it would be easy and, to a certain extent, expected that the practice itself be vilified in the narrative. Instead, the characters are forced to recognise that, no matter how distasteful they find black magic, it is not evil in and of itself – and more, that it using it may well be necessary for Kyralia’s defense.
In keeping with her emphasis on the actions of individuals, even Canavan’s most powerful characters are shown in a deliberative light, defined by the manner in which they make their choices as much as the choices themselves. There are villains, but not outright villains: no matter how opaque their motives might seem to the protagonists or how objectionable their beliefs, the enemy’s actions are always defined by culture and personality. The same is true of her heroes; nobody is infallible, and everyone makes their own decisions. In this context, ignorance and biased assumption are the greatest evils, such Canavan’s most benevolent characters are always struggling to combat them. This extends to her narrative structure, too. In both the Age of the Five and Black Magician series, the initial confrontations which lead to war are portrayed as being so shocking and violent that both characters and readers automatically align themselves against the evils of the enemy. But as the stories progress, these initial assumptions are slowly peeled back, forcing us both to understand the enemy and to reassess our own ‘side’. Similarly, despite the advent of war in both her series, healing is lauded above and beyond martial prowess. In Age of the Five, the skills of the Dreamweaver healers in the aftermath of battle prompt something of a social reconciliation with the dominant Circlians, while two of the heroines in her Kyralian series, Tessia and Sonea, dedicate their strong magical gifts towards helping the less fortunate. A strong social conscience pervades these stories. No matter how entrenched a prejudice is or how understandable in the context of that society, the narrative never condones it.
As well as encouraging cultural and social tolerance, Canavan’s stories also contain a strong element of sexual equality, both in terms of feminism and homosexuality. Her most recent novel, The Rogue, features three romances, all given equal prominence, each one concerning at least one point of view character: one male/female, one male/male, and one female/female. Similarly, her Sachakan women in The Magician’s Apprentice are shown in a deeply sympathetic light: a group of wives who, despite being controlled primarily by their husbands, have nonetheless founded an underground political movement dedicated to promoting the welfare of other, similarly restricted women and offering sanctuary to those in need. There’s a lovely naturalism to these narrative elements, and a gentleness to their execution which is nonetheless powerful. By which I mean: the characters are never defined solely by these aspects of their personalities, nor do they become crusaders. Rather, they teach by example, encouraging change by living in such a way as to prove its worth.
Couple this with a fluid writing style, memorable characters and epic plots, and you have a set of books that are well worth reading. Canavan is an intelligent, compassionate writer with a knack for crafting believable societies, cementing her characterisation through conflicts that hinge on issues of personal choice, political freedom and, above all, social change.