An ancient curse springs into life, and the only means of stopping it is using the mixed blood of a prince of Osgaard and a mage - Prince Harkeld. The Sentinel mages come to find Harkeld, but discover that he has a learned hatred of magic and distrusts those who seek only to help him. So Innis, the most gifted mage and shapeshifter, is forced to do the forbidden and take the shape of a man so that she is able to protect Harkeld, in order that he can fulfil his destiny.
I so wanted to like The Sentinel Mage, I really did. I thought the premise sounded winning, and enjoyed the idea of shapeshifters in a proper fantasy novel (rather than just urban fantasy), but it didn't work for me at all.
This was despite Gee's very accomplished writing. Her prose is smooth and very readable, and broken into little bite-sized chapters that keep the pages turning. Considering that it is just over five hundred pages, I shot through it in the matter of a day or so and it is testimony to Gee's prose that I did so. I love the idea of what she would be capable of with an exciting and unique plot; I genuinely think she would step to the fore as one of the premier female fantasists were that the case.
As it is, Gee saddled herself with a plot that is remarkably high on predictability. Harkeld has to destroy three anchor stones, and there are three novels in the trilogy - I honestly don't think it will surprise anyone that one goes this book, and I'm betting the second will go at the end of the second book. In the third novel of the trilogy I'm anticipating a little tension/race against time/re-emerge of the mage who first cast the curse to shed a minute amount of doubt over the success of the mission. Probably someone will die in that final showdown - maybe in self-sacrifice - and, at the moment, Petrus is looking prime for that role considering his doomed love for Innis who, predictably again, is starting to fall for Harkeld. At the start of the novel Harkeld hates all mages, but is gradually coming around to them - he and Innis will have the start of a romance, then he will realise that Innis has been lying about shifting into a man, and they will have a big falling out. He or she will depart the group at this point. *sighs* I wish it wasn't as predictable as this - none of this first novel in the Cursed Kingdoms presented me with any surprise whatsoever.
I felt that Gee really missed a trick in not emphasising the "woman shifting into a man" element of the plot. Truly, this could have made the novel stand out amongst other fantasy releases this year. There could have been humour, and near misses, and a real sense of the differences between men and women. As it was, the mages discussed how difficult it would be for Innis to truly take on the role of Justen, and then it proved all too easy. Innis fooled the Prince with ease. She became a man with ease, with all those different mannerisms, and different ways of communicating. I can't imagine any woman being able to mimick a man effectively, and it would have been nice to see a hint of distrust from Harkeld in this new armsman of his. *sighs*
Harkeld must be really DAMN stupid as well! The mages manage to fool him with constant switches as to who apes Justen, so that Innis can take some time in her female shape (apparently it is dangerous to stay in one shape for a while - but we never see any hint of this danger; no near misses or anything). All they do is keep going behind rocks and swapping over - surely even the most dense person must realise that different people came back from behind the rock? *sighs*
Although, to be fair, Harkeld could be forgiven for not realising since the characters are pretty much cardboard cut-outs of fantasy characters. The only facet of Harkeld's personality I saw was his hatred of mages and unwanted attraction to Innis. Innis is shy and bites her lip. Petrus is probably the most interesting of all, and he still falls extremely short of genuine characterisation.
As I've hinted, one of the real weaknesses of the novel is that Gee spends a lot of time telling us about problems and issues, but then not showing us how these affect the plot and character. I would have liked to see more practical demonstrations of HOW it is dangerous to stay in one form for too long, for instance.
Honestly, I was so disappointed. Like I said, I REALLY wanted to like this book. The plus side is that I liked Gee's style of writing enough to pick up something else by her, but I don't need to read the other two books in the Cursed Kingdom trilogy to know how this story is going to end. Unless you are after tepid and predictable fantasy, I would give this one a miss.