Review by Joel Kreissman
Mage, the third novel of R.A. Meenan’s Zyearth Chronicles series, starts in the year 2039 on an alternate Earth inhabited by both humans and animal-like aliens called zyfaunos, including a spine-bearing species called “quilars.” In the prior two novels a small, hidden island inhabited by quilars with a unique form of magic made contact with Zyearth, their species’ lost homeworld, but most of Earth remains unaware of Zyearth’s existence. Instead of the established cast, this novel introduces two new main characters: Leah Nealia, a feline historian and healer from Zyearth who can sense one’s entire medical history with a touch; and Zeke Brightclaw, a quilar test pilot from Earth facing a traumatic past and his own unknown heritage. Shortly after the two meet by chance, an unexpected magical event sends the two of them back in time to 2029, during a devastating war called the War of Eons. Now Zeke and Leah must face their demons and save their future.
Leah and Zeke together make an interesting contrast. They’re both broken in their own ways. Leah, because her privacy-invading power makes her a social pariah on Zyearth, while Zeke suffers PTSD from already fighting in the War of Eons once and returning to the war has reopened those wounds afresh. Zeke pushes people away because he’s both afraid of losing them and of being exploited, while Leah is afraid of rejection, but they’ve wound up stuck together thanks to magic. I also thought it was interesting how Leah refers to her brain as “the thought factory” when her anxiety acts up, it seemed a good metaphor for how one’s thoughts can run away as you ruminate on something. Given my own anxieties I was easily able to sympathize with Leah’s anxiety, and while I have no direct experience with PTSD I thought Zeke was a good portrayal based on what I’ve heard.
Much like the prior two novels, their differing cultural backgrounds provide a pair of sounding boards for worldbuilding. Zeke’s war-torn Earth has hints of familiarity to the readers, but ultimately is as alien as Leah’s Zyearth. There’s racism and institutional corruption that some readers will find uncomfortably familiar, but there’s also aliens and magic introducing many differences from the real world both in the open and behind the scenes. Given the state of the world in this book, the reader is inclined to agree with Zeke’s cynicism most of the time. Fortunately, Leah’s optimism is validated on occasion.
Appropriate for a book titled “Mage” we get a look at four different gem-based magic systems. They’re not “balanced” against one another in the slightest, but that’s only necessary in game settings. Some have drawbacks, such as Wishing Dust shortening life expectancy, while others do not have obvious downsides, like the Athanatos Ei-Ei Jewels that make the user near-immortal. Zyearth Lexi Gems and Vanguard Continuum Stones users can live for centuries but not as long as Ei-Ei users. In addition Ei-Ei Jewels allow one to use every type of elemental magic while Lexi and Continuum users are specialized in one or two elements and Wish Dusters have a single very powerful but very specific power. Related, we finally get some information on other inhabited planets besides Earth and Zyearth, though largely confirmation that they exist.
Time travel plots are tricky, especially where stable time loops are involved, but one character is actively trying to change the past. Once it’s shown that the past is fixed it’s hard to set stakes for the heroes’ actions. If the course of history says that they win, it’s difficult to get across the risks of them losing. This book just barely manages to pull that off, by virtue of the villain being just powerful enough to scare the mysterious figure charged with maintaining the timeline. The moral issues with time travel, specifically making sure that bad things happen in order to prevent worse things, is brought up but not really contested. It seems like the characters knew that they had no choice but to let the terrible things happen and were just complaining about having to do it.
Overall, Mage is an exciting new expansion to the series with new characters that can be entered into without reading the previous books, though I’d still recommend them.