My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Digital ARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Arram. Varice. Ozorne. In the first book in the Numair Chronicles, three student mages are bound by fate . . . fated for trouble.
Arram Draper is a boy on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting danger. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram begins to realize that one day soon he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.
In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.
I grew up reading Tamora Pierce. Like I think a large part of who I am as a reader/writer/person in general was shaped by her words. So of course, I was so incredibly excited to get an ARC, especially one of a book that has been so anticipated for years. I was so excited for this book, and honestly I was so pleased by it.
A little note before I start: I remember inhaling Alana and the Immortals. Like I loved them, and I’m sure at the time I talked everyone’s ear off about them. After I read them, though, I fell in love with the Circle of Magic series, and it’s the one I ended up going back to most often. It’s the series I remember the best, even after several years. Immortals, though, uh…. not so much…. So, while I’m quite familiar with the writing style, I honestly cannot say I remembered more than an overarching plot relating to Numair.
That did mean that I was going into this book with a weird combination of a strong fondness for the books, but very very sketchy memories of the history/characters. I mean, it took me embarrassingly long to work out/remember that Arram was Numair. As in THAT Numair. Look I know I’m in need of a reread.
The good news is that this book absolutely works apart from the other series. I mean, the book largely explains the world you’re in, and doesn’t rely on understanding of who the characters will be for the plot to make sense, probably because it’s essentially a prequel. In fact, I feel as though knowing that Arram is Numair (and knowing who he is) can even spoil part of the tension in this book. If you’ve read her past books, you know one of the relationships is bound to sour, and that later becomes a huge point of Numair’s story, which might cause disconnect with the characters. Not knowing what’s around the corner, though, means that the souring is actually felt.
Buuuuut even if it is a prequel and possible to read as your first Tamora Pierce book, if you’re unfamiliar with her writing, and don’t already have a fondness for the characters/world, the book does start at a very slow pace. The arc of this book is more of a ‘childhood backstory’ than a traditional three act structure. That’s something that could potentially turn new readers away, especially as the book progresses towards the end without an obvious build of tension.
I remember this narrative/technique of looking at the years and passing of time from a distance, and then “diving in” for particular diving moments from other books, and I personally find it a good way to get the best of both worlds. But, it can distance you from the characters when months pass in a sentence, and slow your reading right down when the story lingers over certain lessons. It’s a really nostalgic sort of set up for a story, but it’s also a particular sort of taste.
I adored Arram though, I’ve got to say. I think even without my fondness for the world, I would have been drawn in by him. Numair has this pretty trope-y title of basically the best mage there is, so there is a bit of a chosen one vibe going on with Arram in his school. But I just really liked him?
His understanding of his own powers, and his genuine curiosity were such a good pairing? Too often the “chosen one” is some reluctant kid who refuses to see their power till it’s the very last moment, and that whole pushing back against destiny thing is a very very over done take. But Arram was someone that studied and pushed and even snuck away to the library when he was eleven or twelve to read all that he could on the topics that interested him. You can see this character as one who is naturally going to become powerful, because he’s been working for it his whole life.
(spoiler)The ooooone complaint I have about his POV was the v awkward references to his ‘male organ’ ahahaha. I mean, on one hand, I remember Alana being a favourite because it didn’t shy away from the problems of periods in that time, and female puberty in general. So, by that standard, it shouldn’t be a problem to do the same for Arram….? But, maybe because I’m reading this as a 21 year old girl about a like 13 year old boy… it was just awkward to read about his male member’s interest in anything.(spoiler)
What I think really made me love Arram was that he had such a fantastic relationship with his teachers/the masters? I know that it’s another ‘chosen one’ trope to have the student separated for special classes, but again he developed really genuine relationships with each of the masters such that it seemed only naturally that you’d want to reward that interest with personal attention. I particularly liked the way his gift was drawn on by the masters, and his growing understanding of how to use it coming as a result of those connections.
Then, of course, there was the healing magic. Healers are possibly my favourite type of mage. No surprise coming from a biomed kid, right? I loved how this gift was taught in this book so much. I mean, Arram and his friends were studying anatomy and medicinal herbs for years, and then he was paired with Ramasu, and had the experience of actually working in the field, building on his knowledge from studying in theory. I found that whole aspect of the book really interesting, especially when it came to the games/the arena and the relationship between the healers and the gladiators.
Also Ramasu was amazing. I loved him, and his balance of a kind heart and a stern face. His relationship with his husband, however briefly shown, was so sweet. With Sebo (my other favourite master, grumpy but best), Cosmas and Yadeen, Arram was basically set in the A++ adult mentor department.
But, I think my absolute favourite aspect of the book was the relationship between Arram, Ozorne and Varrice. It was something I definitely remembered from Tamora Pierce books — a really lovely friendship, with a good balance of friction and genuine love for each other. It was really interesting to see the way it grew as they grew up in the university, and the beginnings of tensions in the friendship. This was particularly true of Ozorne and his increasingly strained relationships with those around him.
Ozorne was brilliant. I really liked his maturation from some idealistic, bright eyed kid with hopes of running away with his friends to a house in the woods, to a more calculating, ambitious prince heir. Though at times he lost me, especially with his extreme prejudice, for the most part it was easy to see how he will become the man that he does. I mean, suffocating, and controlled, and with the threat of the heirs dying…
I really wish he could stay the boy who protected Arram, and who would choose to spend his day softly caring for animals, but I guess that’s kinda the point. I think it’s realistic to show that just because he can be a lovely, soft boy for his friends, doesn’t mean he’s not capable of something with a little more steel. (spoiler)It’s a damn shame that I know he’s going to grow into a dick and his friendship with Arram will result with Numair on the run…(spoiler)
I think the only thing that took this book down from five stars, for me, was the arc of this book in particular. While there were good sub plots going on, and the characters certainly grew, I was really looking for some overarching climax, to draw things together. I suspect that this is going to come in later books, but I would have really loved some sort of… climax point nonetheless? I mean, the book seemed to end quite abruptly. Like I literally skipped over it, and then hit the glossary like ????
I’m not sure if that’s because the book is just the lead in to the next book, or because Arram found things increasingly easier as the book went on, and so any climax was minimised because he dealt with it so smoothly. I’m actually hoping it’s the first, because while Arram was almost too powerful, I think that’s part of his whole thing, and so I’m hoping later the plot will really challenge him.
I guess, though, it’s a testament to Tamora Pierce’s writing that I don’t even mind that much? I’m still going to recommend this book to anyone who read her growing up, or to anyone who wants a nostalgic sort of throw back. Or, actually, just anyone who wants a really good fantasy world, with budding mages, princes, and a fantastic setting in the university for mages.