September 18, 2015


While this adventure isn't technically YA nor marketed as such, the protagonist is a young man in a magical "university," but given the sort of Olde English wording in some spots and the kind of feel of the story, I think "university" might be a catch-all word for "boarding school;" Veranix certainly doesn't seem much older than maybe seventeen and perfectly relate-able for most teens.

Summary: A student by day, Veranix Calbert is a Robinhood-style hustler by night, out to shut down the drug trade in the neighborhood of Dentonhill, and utterly ruin the crime lord who runs it. It's not a minor goal, and it's one which would be made a lot easier if a.) he could inform the Constabulary of his plans, and b.) they would take him seriously, and c.) work with him, but he's a student, young and impulsive - and some of the Law is pretty crooked. No matter - Veranix has his gang lieutenant cousin to watch his back, his friend Kaiana to sew him up and shake her head at his stupidity - and an information source in his roommate Delrin - and that's all he really needs. He also has the loot from an intercepted forty-thousand crown drug deal that turns out to be a rope... and a cloak. He has no idea what a drug lord was doing with them, nor does Veranix have any intention of giving them back - and soon, he realizes it would be dangerous to do so. Veranix, with a handful of magic and a head full of revenge, soon becomes as notorious as legend, and soon the street gangs, and even mages from outside the University all want a piece of his hide. He's used to scrapes, going without sleep, burning the candle on both ends, but it's all been worth it, to be a thorn in one man's side... But it's a lot harder than you'd think to be a thorn and not get yanked out.

Peaks: I could read about magic schools all day, and students who are meant to be studying, but who are doing EVERYTHING else instead - that's a cross-cultural, cross-genre trope that always plays well. The setting in the novel, a kind of Renaissance-era, quasi-familiar, somewhat "olde worlde" magical universe seems also to be where we've been before, but this Maradine has an underlying structure which intrigues - gangs fight for territorial holds on various streets, street kids below, block captains above - some of whom operate hand and glove with the crooked Constabulary, which in some neighborhoods can be bribed to look the other way. The "hoods" are about difference - the walled University, the respectable working folk of Aventil, the Waterstreet Bridge which crosses into the scrabbling underclass of Dentonhill - and what makes them the same. Interestingly, the gang life isn't glossed over as "bad people" who live on the underbelly; we get a real sense of the family ties and loyalties and pride which hold them together - and the anxieties of living on the edge of violence and hunger, in a crooked city where wealth and magic might just go hand and glove - and fist. With no real justice coming from above, an anti-hero like Veranix can rise from the ranks into greatness - if he's allowed to do so, and if he's supported by the people. I like that he has a legitimate grievance against the drug lord of his neighborhood -- this isn't some idealistic "people shouldn't do drugs" campaign, but a quest for justice which holds Veranix by the throat. He isn't going to give up. Though he is young and distracted by food and dodging authority as most students, his single-minded focus makes him unlike many fictional guys his age, and makes a refreshing change in a main character. The pacing is fast, the action is sometimes harrowing, and there is so much going on that the reader is plunged in, and really has to sink or swim.

Valleys: This is an adventure novel with a strong protagonist, supported by a strong female friend, yet I was disappointed that more time isn't spent on the positive depiction of female characters in this novel. Veranix has a mother - but she's not present in the novel. One of his best friends is female, Kaiana, but because she's a "Napa" girl - dark-skinned, and the only female on the groundskeeping staff at the university - (no reason given why she's not a student, but maybe the magical university only takes boys, or numina only comes to boys? - this is not sufficiently explored) she's discounted in many ways, even by her alleged friend Veranix. Unhappily, all the other women in the novel are drug using prostitutes or poverty-stricken former prostitutes... Women don't seem very smart, nor do they seem to have agency - they must either be protected or rescued, or, as in the case of Kaiana, they make incredible sacrifices to rescue Veranix by playing to the stereotypes about them, and are subsequently abused for it. Eventually, through zero effort on Veranix's part, Kai's sacrifice is "rewarded," -- and her "reward" is that nothing changes for her - she's still brown-skinned, still sleeping in a carriage house and working for a bigot within a sexist system, still without justice for her story or any audience for it (we are never told details, but learn Veranix's ad nauseum, so why is she helping him? How is that fixing things for her?), living on the edges and fringes and ...yay? I wanted more for her, and from Veranix, and from the world -- but I also realize that this book has sequel(s) and maybe there will be more depth, but I'm also aware that people don't necessarily demand gender and ethnic parity of their fiction, so maybe not.

Also, I found it ...maybe not surprising, but wearying that in this vibrant new universe the author created, prejudice is still based on skin pigment. Disappointing.

Conclusion: With a fast-paced plot and a driven protagonist, we're introduced to a magical world with a lot of familiarity but with a lot of "new things per page" to keep readers engaged. Readers will be glad they read this, and eager for the companion novel/sequel, which is already out from DAW.

I received my copy of this book through my own purchase. You can find THE THORN OF DENTONHILL by Marshall Ryan Maresca at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


Charlotte said...

I will add this to my list; which isn't necessarily saying so much because the list goes ever on and on. But I do like magical schools....

tanita✿davis said...

@Charlotte ~ It was a fun one - I don't know if other sequels will go back to the school; the sequel was set in the city, but the sequel was most excellent as well.