Recent Reading: The Magic’s Poison series by Gillian Bradshaw

Magic’s Poison

The Enchanted Archive

The Duke’s Murder

The Iron Cage

Okay, I realize that my enthusiasm for the first book in this series was somewhat muted. But now I want to more strongly recommend the whole series, for three reasons:

a) The third and fourth books are much more compelling than the first two, and

b) Bradshaw does something really interesting and unusual with this series, and

c) You need to read the whole series in order so that you can appreciate the above two points.

The first two books take place three years apart and feature the same characters. Marin is the pov character in both. The third book takes place six years after that; it features a different pov character, Jaketta, whom I, at least, found much more interesting than Marin. The fourth takes place about fifteen years after that and also features a different pov character, Indareh, whom I also found more engaging than Marin.

But it’s not just that the latter two books have more engaging pov characters. What really makes the difference is that there’s more action and higher stakes in both of those books; and also, it becomes increasingly clear that the pov characters in this series are not the protagonists. It took me an absurdly long time to realize this; it suddenly leaped out at me when I began the fourth book. It should have been obvious long before that. I mention it up front because I bet many readers would enjoy the first two books more if they knew this going in.

This is the cool and unusual thing that Bradshaw is doing with this series: separating the roles of the pov characters and the protagonist. I personally know of only two other authors who have done this (no doubt there are others): Dorothy Dunnett does this in her Game of Thrones series, her Niccolo series, and her Dolly mysteries. In all three cases, we never see the pov of the actual protagonist; the protagonist is viewed only from the outside. The pov characters change around, but the protagonist is constant through each series.

Inspired by Dunnett’s work, I did the same thing in a long unpublished fantasy novel that I wrote ages ago. You’ll all probably get a chance to read this eventually, one way or another. It’s such an interesting technique. Preventing the reader from looking through the eyes of the protagonist means that the author can legitimately decline to show the reader what is really going on. This does strange things with tension. It’s similar to watching Terminator II without knowing up front that the Terminator is on the good-guy side, or The Hunt for Red October without knowing that Ramius is defecting to the US rather than planning an attack.

In Bradshaw’s case, I think this is one reason why I found Marin less than compelling. Bradshaw knew all along where the real focus of the story lay, and I felt, correctly, that Marin was not that focus. Because it’s impossible for the reader to correctly identify the true protagonist for some time, the story seems to drag. Then, as the true protagonist begins to take his rightful place at the center of both the story and the reader’s attention, the book picks up. By the beginning of the third book, I was much more focused on the real protagonist even though I hadn’t yet said to myself: Hey, this character right here is obviously the real protagonist! By the fourth book, it was super clear not just who was driving the action, but how cool it was that the reader is never allowed to look through his eyes. This is indeed a case where the protagonist works best when viewed from the outside.

I will admit that both Jaketta and Indareh are also perhaps just more interesting, but I don’t think that alone explains why the first two books dragged and the third and fourth were so much more compelling.

I should also add, just so this doesn’t take you by surprise, that one problem with the second book is that a rather huge proportion of the story is taken up with static scenes where characters argue with each other, often about the same thing they argued about in the previous chapter. This doesn’t make for a really compelling novel. It’s the sort of thing a good editor ought to have helped Bradshaw tighten up if the series had been traditionally published. But the book is perfectly readable, and I hereby suggest you all read it so as to move on to the third and fourth books.

Now, you recall that in the post about Magic’s Poison, I went on to rank Bradshaw’s novels, and I set Magic’s Poison toward the bottom, between The Sun’s Bride and Alchemy of Fire. It’s only fair to rank the other three books in the same way, so:

The Enchanted Archive is probably below Dark North, so right at the bottom of the Bradshaw books I like, though of course still way above the Bradshaw books I actually dislike.

The Duke’s Murder and The Iron Cage stand much, much higher. I’m actually inclined to drop them into the first group of my favorite Bradshaw novels, perhaps right above Render Unto Caesar. I didn’t expect that going in, but yeah, somewhere right up at the top. So if you have previously read Magic’s Poison and thought meh, then I hereby encourage you very strongly to go on and read the full series. If you do, let me know what you think! I’m very interested to know if other readers experience this series differently if they know up front that the pov characters are not the protagonist.

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8 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The <em>Magic’s Poison</em> series by Gillian Bradshaw”

  1. Err, Dunnett’s first series was Lymond Chronicles, not Game of Thrones.

    I think Bradshaw does the same thing in the second & third of her Arthurian trilogy (which I haven’t reread in years, but I loved as a late teen when it was coming out). Kingdom of Summer is narrated by the servant of the protaganist, and In Winter’s Shadow by Guenivere but the interest was still in Gwalchmai, protaganist and narrator of #1.

    When I think of the naivete of the narrator of #1 I mentally cringe, which is why I haven’t gone back and reread in years.

    I guess I’ll have to reread the Poison set. Which is fair, I’ve always wondered if my lackluster take on them was influenced by reading them on planes, in airports, etc.

  2. Rachel Neumeier

    Yes, yes, the Lymond series, I should have said. The first book of which is Game of Kings, which is where that slip came from.

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    I think Stephen Lawhead used Bedivere as the pov character despite the fact that the series was about Arthur. I remember being pretty startled by that back in the day.

  4. I had the exact same experience: strangely disengaged from #1, and more interested over time as I realized Bradshaw is writing the history of a people and a Great Man, seen from the eyes of those around him. She often does this in her Roman novels (I’m thinking particularly The Bearkeeper’s Daughter) but bc you aren’t primed to recognize the actual Great Man in MAGIC’s POISON it took me significantly longer to catch on.

    I still think Marin isn’t terribly interesting though.

  5. Mary Beth, The Bearkeeper’s Daughter is definitely similar, but I didn’t get the same impression that the pov character was really unimportant and uninteresting. This is probably because he is the only character with an actual arc; the Great Men and Women present in the background do not change at all during the course of the story.

    In the Magic’s Poison series this is not the case at all, as we are actually following the Great Man as he becomes Great.

  6. I’m on the second book now. I think my reading experience has been very different as a result of your recommendation. I started the first book asking myself, who is really the protagonist, and so the very first time the protagonist appeared, I immediately said to myself, yes, this is the one, and I know the secret. Having been given the warning, the author provided lots of clues. I think, as a result, that I enjoyed the first book more than you or some of the others, precisely because I knew up front that Marin was not the central focus, so I could enjoy hearing about her life, but knowing that she’s basically playing a bit part. From that point of view, she’s a more appealing narrator. I know her own personality and problems don’t have to bear the weight of four books.

  7. That’s exactly what I hoped would happen, Allan. Glad to know you’re enjoying the book so far, but I bet you’ll find that the series still definitely gets better as you go!

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