The second book of ‘The Black Magician’ trilogy by Trudi Canavan is by far my favourite of the three books in the series. I love all three of them, don’t get me wrong, but ‘The Novice’ falls into my top five favourite books of all time.
The book continues the story where ‘The Magician’s Guild’ left off, and the main character Sonea is now having to face the reality of training to become a magician in an environment of students that are openly hostile to her because she was born and raised in the slums of the city, rather than as one of the nobility. The plot of the story though isn’t what makes me love the book it is the character of Sonea that inspires me.
I was a teenage girl when I first read the book, and while I was raised to believe that I could do anything that wasn’t an attitude I had really encountered in fantasy fiction. I was raised reading J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Terry Brooks and there are not an over-abundance of strong female characters in their books. Most of the main protagonists are male. Sonea was one of the first fiction characters I came across that I could really relate to on a very personal level.
Sonea very much just wants to get on with her studies, but she has to cope with the prejudice she faces on, which eventually escalates to violent abuse. It stems from the pure and simple fact that her bullies are incredibly jealous of the treatment she gets and the amount of magical power that Sonea is able to wield. Even after she becomes the Novice of the High Lord (the Black Magician that inspired the name of the trilogy), a privilege that should have stopped the abuse, the moment they realise she won’t go to him for help the abuse towards her just escalates.
Now, admittedly what I have just described there doesn’t sound particularly pleasant to have to read, and quite frankly if you are looking for a light read, then don’t read Canavan, because she doesn’t shirk away from uncomfortable topics. Sonea is trapped between a rock and a hard place, because while she could seek help, she would have to do so from someone who she hates and distrusts more than the average magician. You see the High Lord is not all that he seems; there are mysteries surrounding him, which are explored in the final book. She is essentially being held captive by the High Lord as the pawn in a blackmailing scheme so he can keep his secrets.
And at no point, throughout the entire book does Sonea give up. She remains strong, focused on her goal of becoming a Healer. One of the gender themes explored in the books are the various roles that male and female magicians end up specialising in. Becoming a Healer is very much a role women are more inclined towards, and Sonea is no different, but is very much because she views that sort of use of magic as something that is actually beneficial.
Becoming a warrior though is something she is genuinely not interested in becoming and it is stated that women are actively discouraged from doing it. Sonea though has very legitimate reasons, i.e. first-hand experience of how dangerous magic can be that discourages her from pursuing those topics. However, the High Lord pushes her to improve her Warrior marks, and in this book the High Lord’s one redeeming feature is that at no point does he believe that she can’t do it simply because she was a woman. While the message is buried in there quite deep, the idea that women are no different than meant a great deal to me as a teenager, and even more to me now as a grown woman.
What is also just as important to me now is that Canavan as much as she doesn’t shirk away from gender themes in her books, she also doesn’t shirk away from sexuality either. ‘The Novice’ explores the wider world created by Canavan in a way that ‘The Magician’s Guild’ just isn’t able to do within the scope of that book. One of the main characters from the first book Dannyl is sent out into the wider world as an Ambassador of the Guild and explores the other cultures that make up the Allied Nations. The prominent theme within this particular story line, beyond the fascination of looking at the different fictional cultures, is the way in which male homosexuality is viewed, accepted or in some cases violently rejected.
While I didn’t connect to those ideas as much as I did to Sonea when I was growing up, being a great deal less naïve now than I was then, having those sorts of questions asked in a work of fiction is vitally important and just another reason why I love the book.