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The Magister's Mask
Deby Fredericks
Dragon Moon, 352 pages

The Magister's Mask
Deby Fredericks
Deby Fredericks was born in the Mojave Desert of California, and raised in Los Angeles County. She attended Whitworth College, in Spokane, and graduated in 1981, with a degree in English Literature. The Magister's Mask is her first novel.

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A review by Donna McMahon

In the city of Chalsett, it is traditional that an apprentice who has finished her training shall be assigned the very next case that requires a magister. But Shenza Waik, humble daughter of an illiterate fisherman, feels far from ready when that case turns out to be the horrifying murder of the First Lord of Chalsett by magical fire.

Nonetheless, Shenza dons her gleaming new magister's mask and sets out, trying not to be daunted by how much rests on her investigation. The spirits of this world are all too real -- and all too angry. They want vengeance on the First Lord's killer, and if Shenza does not find the assassin quickly they will take out their wrath on all the humans of Chalsett.

This is the auspicious start of The Magister's Mask, a smart and entertaining Fantasy/Mystery set in a world somewhat reminiscent of Earthsea. In her first novel, new author Deby Fredericks has got a great many things right. Shenza is a compelling, sympathetic protagonist, very believable as a shy and excessively conscientious young woman determined to succeed in her new career.

While the setting is in many ways a standard medieval fantasy with magic, Fredericks takes the interesting tack of treating magic scientifically. There are, for example, sorcerers who specialize in criminal investigation (magisters) and curomancers, who systematically combine magical healing with medical/herbal skills.

The book's backdrop is not cardboard, either. Fredericks has thought out the politics, geography and economy of her society, and the people feel very real. Shenza's family members turn their hands to whatever seasonal, temporary, or piece-work jobs are available, in a constant scramble to afford their modest home. And when Shenza declares the port closed so the assassin cannot flee the island, the decision has an immediate impact on everyone in the city, including her own brother who is thrown out of work at the docks.

Fredericks also highlights the uneasy balance between policing and justice through Shenza's adversarial relationship with Chief Borleek of the Peacekeepers. Borleek wants to find a likely culprit and take immediate action; Shenza demands a painstaking investigation of the facts. And neither of them have the authority to make ultimate decisions -- that rests with the new Lord of Chalsett who is an unknown quantity.

There are some weaknesses in this book, which are generally symptomatic of a first novel. Fredericks has a bit of trouble handling viewpoint. Most of the narrative is told from Shenza's perspective, but a few scenes are related through her former teacher, Laraquies. Unfortunately, Laraquies' view does not add much to the story dramatically, and the transitions are awkward enough that they jar. It feels suspiciously as if he's popping up to tell us things that the writer hasn't figured out how to convey through her protagonist.

The last scene of the novel is also weak -- conveying information in a stilted way and lacking that emotional punch we need after having travelled so far with Shenza. And finally, the author contrives a few too many excuses to get her heroine into peril, but what the heck. I got hooked on the story early on and happily skated past the occasional excess of heroic naïveté or improbable coincidence.

This is a very good read and I look forward to more.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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