A review by tachyondecay
Mage Quest by Julia Blake

adventurous dark emotional funny mysterious medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read Erinsmore, a secondary-world fantasy novel coincidentally written by my former landlady from when I lived in England. Erinsmore works quite well as a standalone novel. However, in Mage Quest, Julia Blake provides us with an excellent sequel story, one that revisits beloved characters from the first book, introduces new ones, and builds further on the lore of this world.

On Earth, six years have elapsed since Ruby returned from her adventure in Erinsmore. She routinely visits with Mick, one of the few people she knows who remembers this other world. When a portal to Erinsmore opens for her, Ruby is overjoyed—but her return to Erinsmore is complicated by the fact that Mick’s new ward, his thirteen-year-old nephew, Finn, follows her. Stuck in Erinsmore for the time being, Finn and Ruby acclimate and join the heir to the throne on a quest to find her mage. This quest takes them to the extreme edges of Erinsmore and will force them to confront an existential threat far older and more sinister than they dared imagine.

Much as I observed in my review of the first book, the charm of Mage Quest lies somewhat in nostalgia for the fantasy novels of my youth. Returning to Erinsmore is like returning to those good ol’ days of devouring doorstopper epic fantasy novel after epic fantasy novel in the big comfy chair in the living room of my parents’ house. Its style and atmosphere are so much like the fantasy of the late nineties, early oughts—without, you know, any of the racism or sexism or whatnot that often creeped into our fantasy worlds. Indeed, this book introduces a nonbinary character, Xem, to the cast, which was nice.

So the plot structure will feel very familiar to fantasy fans, as will the supporting characters, and that’s all to the good. Blake wastes no time, once we get to Erinsmore, getting us into the quest. Ruby’s return to Erinsmore is rightfully treated as a kind of homecoming, but she’s there for barely a day before it’s all, “By the way, the crazy old woman said you should come with us, so you’re coming, right?” and she’s all, “Of course I’m coming, sillies,” and off they go on their dragons. It’s awesome.

Last time we were here, the kingdom was devastated and at war. I really enjoyed getting to see Erinsmore at peace, and if anything, I wish we had seen more of that. However, I can appreciate the need for pacing, and I can’t fault Blake for how well she balances wanting to show off this world with the need to get the characters further along the map until they find and fight this book’s Big Bad.

As with the setting and plot, the characters are comfy archetypes too, and this goes for the Big Bad. I really enjoyed watching our heroes become ensnared in the Big Bad’s trap, their struggle to escape it, and in particular, the way that Blake finds a way for each of them to shine. This is true even for Finn—whose role in the story otherwise feels somewhat superfluous and disappointing, given how much emphasis is placed on him at the start of the book. He’s rather sidelined by the end, but he still manages to eke out a contribution to the climactic battle.

Perhaps my ambivalence about Finn comes from a wider ambivalence I sense about the audience for this series. Erinsmore is firmly a teen/ YA, sitting comfortably on a shelf alongside, say, The Dark Is Rising. Mage Quest, on the other hand, feels a little older and more mature. This makes sense, for Ruby, our protagonist for most of the book, is older and more mature. So maybe Finn’s presence as deuteragonist is to function as a character that younger readers, having devoured Erinsmore, will identify with when they pick up the sequel.

All of this is to say, of course, that even though I appreciate the nostalgia factor inherent to this book, I can still only comment on it from my present perspective as a thirty-four-year-old woman—and that perspective is that I am here for this series now in a way I wasn’t necessarily when I read Erinsmore. The first two acts of Mage Quest are a little slow, as you might expect from a sequel that, for some, will be their first foray into Erinsmore. That third act, from climax to denouement, though? Love it. I love the resolution, and I love the way Blake takes her worldbuilding to the next level, opening up worlds (quite literally) of possibility to explore in the future.

So it was that Erinsmore was a perfectly fine standalone novel, but I also wasn’t itching for a sequel. In contrast, the ending to Mage Quest, while not a cliffhanger by any means, nevertheless screams for more. It reminds me quite a bit of Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares series (starting with Magic Lost, Trouble Found): I just want to keep coming back to this world and its characters and its politics and vibe with them. I don’t really even care what the plot is at this point; I just want to hang out with them.

Originally posted at Kara.Reviews.