Author: A.S. Frederiks
In vibrant pools hidden away by time and jealousy, in bright azure veins upon cavern walls, in the very air itself, emanates the power of Mana, granting powers unique and destructive to those strong enough to wield them.
MANABORN is the story of three such people, unaware of their magical powers. Thrust into perilous adventures, their world unravels as the fate of a kingdom is thrown into flux due to events involving King Aradel himself and his mysterious Magus.
Valory, a hard-nosed teen on the run with her father, searches for her true identity; Sir, a spirited noblewoman, leaves behind a life of nobility and abuse to become a knight; and finally, the carefree Lord Cassian Morrow and his Shieldguard Robert receive a sudden visit from the king.
Bonds between friends and family are tested as their lives intertwine in the shadow of the crown. Danger looms and secrets are brought to light, but one question stands above the rest;
What is honor?
Though Manaborn is a little too violent with descriptions of violence that are too detailed for my taste, and not as easy to skim as I would like, what drew me into the book was a philosophical conversation about the virtues of knighthood that takes place between Cassian and Robert in the first chapter. It’s not that deep, but it asks some questions, and while they – well, mostly Robert – could be a little irritating in their ideas and responses, that wasn’t the kind of irritating I mind. People can be like that – as if sharing an apple with a commoner child is some demonstration of true solidarity, and not something of the sort that people do to appease their consciences or feel good about themselves, or even foster gratitude, without any true commitment. The conversation, placed in the first chapter as it was, gave me hopes and expectations for the rest of the book, that kept me reading through places where it was annoying and not all that gripping.
These hopes weren’t fully fulfilled, but they were not completely unfounded. There were moments in the middle when I wondered if this was just another silly medieval fantasy with virtuous knights and all those trappings that frankly can get to annoy me. But it turned out to be a lot more than that. Many of those moments were turned on their head, in a story that, by the time it was complete, emphasized the cruelty and dishonor of violence and war, the unfairness that the world can be, and the way people’s ideals and the symbols they choose to represent those ideals sometimes don’t match up. The different stories were artfully woven together to present contrast and provoke thought through the experiences, values, and growths of the different characters, so that we see Sir and Robert’s ideal of Knighthood contrasted with events that can only be described as disillusioning.
It is not a grimdark story without hope. It’s not the deepest story about hope, but it is not grimdark, though it’s definitely very, very sad at times, as our protagonists experience some pretty horrific trauma at times that changes their lives – and sometimes breaks them. Yet all of our main characters are people who fundamentally want to be good, and though they may sometimes be very confused about what means (perhaps without even knowing that they are confused?), they don’t go about committing atrocities in the name of their ideals. Sir and Robert’s ideals are not crushed by the disillusionment as to the actual matter of Knighthood that they experience, and Sir is even allowed to live her dream and redeem it in a few choice moments. It is also a story that highlights three different kinds of relationships: a brotherly love, a romantic bond, and the care between a parent and a child.
There were a number of things that I found confusing and did not make sense while reading, but that when I’d finished the book and thought about it, the pieces fit together. However, at the same time, other pieces did not match, and I wonder if there is an explanation for them. But apart from the holes in the plot and world-building, the book reads like a standalone, wrapping up the stories it tells quite nicely.
And my favourite thing about the book is, I think, a spoiler.
So onto the …
The Review About the Things that Matter Most (Aka Spoiler Review):
Manaborn is multi-timeline, and one of the timelines ends in something that (at least if it were the only timeline) would be considered a tragic ending by most people. And, admittedly, it was pretty sad. But the last line of it was absolutely redeeming.
Finally she allowed herself to go. The darkness was not cold and empty as she had anticipated. Instead, it felt more like a familiar embrace.
I took that to hint – strongly – that when Sir dies, she is with Cassian, with whom she shared a strong, mutual love that grew over the short time they were together – and continued in their separation, as just a bit earlier, she knows Cassian is dead, as a place that is warm inside of her goes cold or empty, as something like a familiar embrace is gone. And in some ways, it is fundamentally a happy ending – both she and Cassian have suffered so much, and are haunted by the torture they’ve endured – different tortures, but both absolutely life-altering. Cassian hardly really wants to live any more, and I wonder if his last attempt to “do the right, the honorable thing” is a battle he’s having with the bitter, cynical beast that the months of isolation and torture have given birth to in him. It seems … not unhappy … almost happy … that they should die so close in time to one another, and be together in the next world. And I do not wish to criticize Cassian for that “right thing” because … well, he only knew Sir for a few days, and he doesn’t know yet that he has a daughter, and there’s really too much to process.
– I also wonder sometimes if some of the issues in Juro’s relationship with Valory (and his long unwillingness to share their origins with her) may have something to do with the fact that he loves and cares for her as much for Cassian (whom he failed) as for herself. It seems to me that while he cares for her, he’s been a pretty horrible father in a lot of ways.
As for the Magus, I really did not like him. Even if he was willing to die for his beliefs, that doesn’t make him any less of a cruel psychopath. If he were a decent person, he would have stood up for his beliefs in life. He could have killed the King fair and square, and risked his life yes, but that does not excuse him for framing Cassian, and then torturing him. I do not say he is irredeemable, but being willing to die for his beliefs in the mana cave is definitely not redeeming, and Robert has far more honor than he does. I frankly did not understand why they were so willing to see him as honorable, after all the horrible, honorless things he did.
Some apparent plotholes:
At the end of Emily/Sir’s life, her father meets her on the battlefield, and appears to recognize her – he says her name – before she dies. Yet two decades later, he is still hunting for her. Is he crazy? Did his mind erase the moment for him so he can’t remember it?
Given how much the King was already losing his mind to the mana he was consuming, before he became a mana-monster in the cave, and how little mind he appeared to have then, why does he seem to have so much cunning and intelligence when he meets Valory in the caves later?
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