Review: A Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher

Oliver is a very minor mage. He only knows three spells and one of them is to control his allergy to armadillo dander. Also, he’s only twelve years old. Unfortunately, he’s the only mage in his village since his mentor died, so when a drought threatens the survival of his home, he has no choice but to leave to bring back the rain. A Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher, chronicles that journey.

T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym that Ursula Vernon, who publishes children’s books under her own name, uses when writing for adults. A Minor Mage seems to fall into the liminal space between those two categories. In the acknowledgments, she admits that she always believed this was a book for kids, but that she had bowed to other voices. I can see both sides of the argument, but in the end, I would describe this as a children’s book for grown-ups, as it has plenty to offer readers of all ages.

There are literal monsters in this book, as well people who behave monstrously, and Oliver has to find the inner resources to deal with both of them. From the villagers who show up on his doorstep to force him on this journey (a journey he had planned to undertake anyway), to bandits and murderous mayors, Oliver encounters the full range of unpleasant human behavior, and accepts it all with a reasonable amount of wisdom and equanimity. He’s not a saint, but he understands human behavior, even if he is still able to be hurt by it.

Oliver is a clever, down-to-earth boy who tries to think carefully about his actions, and chafes under his own limitations. Often, his belief that he is a minor mage holds him back more than his limited magic. Much of the journey is about him learning how to achieve his goals using the tools at his disposal, instead of yearning for abilities that he does not currently possess. While that’s a particularly salient lesson for kids, I’d say that is relevant for humans of any age.

His armadillo familiar manages to be a talking animal who is still, at heart, an animal. Being a wizard’s familiar gives him the power of speech, and the higher reasoning abilities that go with it, but it doesn’t make him human. And his ability to communicate with other animals is not nearly has helpful as it might be in a more fanciful story. In one of my favorite scenes, he is attempting to communicate with some pigs, and Oliver asks him what they said. He replies, “They didn’t say anything…. They’re not people in pig suits. They don’t have a language like ‘Swinese’ or something. They’re pigs.” That’s the kind of no-nonsense story detail that you can expect from this book.

All in all, A Minor Mage provides a fun, light reading experience that you could share with an older child if you so choose. Oliver is a perceptive narrator, with a wonderful, wry humor. Highly recommended for anyone who prefers their fantasy grounded, and their magic subtle.