The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format — The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

4 thoughts on “The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke”

  1. Interesting. I’ve gone in the reverse order, having read The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish, with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter now near the top of my e-reading list. I look forward to seeing if this reverse-experience matches yours in terms of how I perceive the works.

    Do you think that this sundering into duologies is influenced by a perception that younger readers prefer shorter books, or don’t have the attention span for a longer book? I see a lot of hype about how text messaging, television, Twitter, etc., is ruining our attention span, and I’m not sure if there is data to back that up—but that’s never stopped the publishing industry from buying into something before anyway.

    1. Is that you, Ben? I’m so happy to see you! 🙂

      Re: duologies. It’s entirely possible that the idea that kids are distracted and can’t pay attention is behind cutting books into duologies (or trilogies), but I tend to think its being done for the same reason it has always been done: money. Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear was cut in two for precisely this reason — and I believe over her objections — and that’s not even written for teens. And I’ve been seeing a trend in romance where single novels are serialized into 6-8 installments. Lots of romance reader are pissed at this trend, perceiving it (rightly, I think) as a way of squeezing more dollars out of a single book. (Reaching back in time, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was intended as a single volume, but the publishers cut it into three books. Maybe that is because it would be physically unwieldy in one volume, but the financial considerations can’t have been ignored. )

      Kids also aren’t afraid of door-stoppers, bless their hearts, when you consider the page counts of books by Meyer, Collins or Rowling. Though, of course, it was only the later books in already hugely successful series that swelled to door-stopping numbers. In contrast, I thought the first of Phoebe North’s YA duology, Starglass, stood quite well on its own, and I don’t get the impression that it was simply cracked down the middle. Sometimes the story needs to get told in two books? Hard to say.

      I think there’s a note in the Assassin’s Curse series from Clarke, in which she says that she was the one who drove the two-volume publication. I’m willing to believe it, as maybe the, um, imprecision of the cut was more due to her being a first time novelist than any kind of calculation on the part of the publisher. Here, I just don’t know. The Wizard’s Promise felt more like a protracted prologue.

      Much as I enjoy the risk-taking and oddities I find in Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry novels (they really are one of my favorite publishers), I get the distinct impression that their editing is lackadaisical. I’m not talking about copyediting, but the more ruthless and necessary red-marking that should occur to drive a writer to tighten up the screws. This is not the first time I’ve felt like this in an Angry Robot novel.

      1. I was more open to door-stoppers as a kid, because I had plenty of reading time. Now I won’t try them without lots of reassurance that I’ll really like them.

  2. Much as I enjoy the risk-taking and oddities I find in Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry novels (they really are one of my favorite publishers), I get the distinct impression that their editing is lackadaisical. I’m not talking about copyediting, but the more ruthless and necessary red-marking that should occur to drive a writer to tighten up the screws. This is not the first time I’ve felt like this in an Angry Robot novel.

    This is an interesting observation that correlates with my own experience. I have subscription for both imprints, and so I feel obligated to at least try every book. As a result, my experience is very uneven: there are several great ones, and plenty of good ones, but there are also a great many that don’t do much for me. Partially this is probably a case of sample size—I can imagine having a similar problem if I somehow tried to read all the books published by another publisher without much discrimination on my part.

    But I think you’re right. They’re very … tolerant … towards the books they publish.

    I’m halfway through The Mad Scientist’s Daughter now. I’m enjoying the story but find the detached style of narration less appealing.

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