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Light Stealer

by James Barclay, introduction by Stan Nicholls

(PS Publishing, £8, 89 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition paperback, also available as signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £25, published December 2002.)

Harry Potter and the A-Bomb is my lasting impression of this prequel to James Barclay's cover scan'Legends of the Raven' series. Septern is the greatest mage ever -- and doesn't he know it -- and to prove this to the world, he's devised a spell that could end all life. Not for practical use, you understand, but just for the kudos, and to open up the doctrine of magic to new avenues. What he fails, or refuses, to grasp is that the four internecine colleges of magic and their old enemies, the Wytch Lords, are going to want the details of this spell for their own military purposes. So riding out to give a lecture on his discovery to invited representatives of the four colleges, and uninvited agents of the Wytch Lords, is possibly the worst thing he could do. The second worst thing he could do is to leave his four ambitious student wizards behind to guard his lodge against the aggressors that follow.

Having not read Barclay's novels, I can't say whether knowledge of them adds any richness to this novella, or vice versa, although my ignorance was certainly no impediment to following the story. That said, it's pretty clear that this is a prequel rather than a self-contained tale, since the spell Dawnthief, nominally central to the story, remains peripheral right up to the end. The idea of it sets events in motion, but the spell itself barely figures at all. Then again, I imagine it has a lot more to do in the novel entitled Dawnthief. The idea is posited that magic is a sentient thing, which might have made for interesting developments here, but this isn't followed up at all -- again, perhaps this features in the 'Raven' novels. And the novella's conclusion, while neat, did strike me as somewhat anticlimactic. (Yes, you'll say, of course it's anticlimactic, it's a prequel ... ) Overall, Light Stealer left a little too much lacking to entirely satisfy me. This is undoubtedly a danger with prequels, but not an inevitable one.

Characterisation varies. The trainee wizards are an interesting, well-rounded bunch to start off with, but later developments see two of them undergo such an abrupt change that it's hard to believe they're the same characters -- given the situation, my initial thought was that they must be impostors from one of the rival colleges, but no such luck. Septern himself, meanwhile, is a guignol of such grand proportions that I began rooting for his downfall barely a chapter into the novella. It's easy to see him as a metaphor for Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow atomic bomb engineers, but if this was intended, the metaphor is a little oversimplified -- Septern's ego is too great, and his detachment from political reality too implausibly absolute. The split of point-of-view between Septern and his students means less opportunity to round Septern out, while the student POVs only bolster the confusion over their later change of character.

Light Stealer is an interesting introduction to Barclay's fictional world, but the execution doesn't quite match up to the ideas.

Review by John Toon.

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