The Fountains of Mirlacca by Ashley McConnell
The Fountains of Mirlacca is a quick fantasy book with a familiar-yet-fresh magic system, a world with interesting and unusual twists, a likable protagonist, and two rather serious flaws.
(More on that last part later.)
Ashley McConnell knows her world. But unlike a lot of fantasy that will beat you over the head with excessive world-building, McConnell incorporates hers in very natural ways. For example, in the opening town, there are six clans, and (very nearly) everyone in town belongs to one of those clans. At the local ale house, there are six long, permanent tables—one for each clan. Lining the walls are smaller tables for the far-and-few-between travelers. And Jazen, our clan-less protagonist.
Those sort of natural touches delighted me, deepened my interest in the world, and made this diminutive novel feel much bigger than it really is. There are a few others that I especially love, but I’m fain to put my favoritest things into my reviews—I feel like it spoils the fun of reading.
So the world has a lot of nice touches that give it depth. And I genuinely like Jazen.
As a bastard he’s essentially an indentured servant with no means of escape. Being a bastard also means being suspected of evil-heritage; there are those who would call him demonspawn. Despite this, he has a rich inner world, and his spirit remains uncrushed. When he has the opportunity to be kind, he takes it. He especially delights in the idea of his kindness going unnoticed.
Still, though, he holds no illusions of his life getting any better. So when Vettazen* and her entourage roll through town, he’s intrigued. And when he realizes they’re genuinely nice people, he follows after them. Eventually, after it’s too late to turn back, he has a realistic moment of “what have I done?”, but he sets his jaw and keeps going.
In general, he exhibits a great balance of bold yet uncertain. He’s kind—if not particularly thoughtful—and he’s loyal to those who deserve loyalty. He’s a good protagonist.
I love this vein of kindness in The Fountains of Mirlacca. Vettazen and most of the prominent tertiary characters are kind. Jazen makes friends with a smith in the big city of Mirlacca, and this smith gives Jazen free use of the forge solely based on their shared interested in blacksmithing. Some might call that ‘convenient,’ but it felt plenty realistic to me. As someone who’s benefited from a lot of unexpectant kindness, I love seeing it in fiction.
Another unexpected, but greatly appreciated, element was the humor. The story doesn’t lend itself to humor from the characters themselves, yet a certain amount of deadpan humor livened up the pages. I didn’t even know that you could wield deadpan humor in a serious novel, but I was laughing out loud at the matter-of-fact way McConnell delivered some lines.
So, obviously, there was a lot I liked about The Fountains of Mirlacca. Unfortunately, there were two rather significant flaws: pacing and Bad Back Copy.
In case it isn’t clear by the name, Bad Back Copy is the affliction wherein the back copy of the book somehow undermines the potential enjoyment of the book itself. The two most common types of Bad Back Copy are giving away far too much or causing the reader to expect a different sort of book than the text will actually deliver.
The Fountains of Mirlacca is, sadly, guilty of both. Let's take a look at the copy.
The first section of that back copy is told in the first 62 pages of the book. The second section is told in the last 27 pages of the book.
I spent most of the book guessing that—ahha!—this was the moment Vettazen finally goes missing.
Which also means that the story isn’t really about Jazen using his powers to rescue his mentor. It’s almost exclusively about him roaming Mirlacca and hanging out at the Exorcist’s guild. For most of this, he isn’t capable of performing magic. He does way more blacksmithing than he ever does magic. And when magic does enter his personal arc, it’s not untapped potential and outrageous power; it’s a finding spell.
This is obviously a problem. If I had been pitched a story about a boy finding himself and his place in the world among the curious Exorcists Guild, I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more because I wouldn’t have spent so much time feeling … expectant, I guess?
In the end, he does have to rescue his mentor, but it only takes a few pages before he realizes where she is, and few more pages after that before he reaches her. The promised plot of the story just isn’t quite long or deep enough to feel satisfying.
Which flows into the second flaw: pacing. At 199 pages, The Fountains of Mirlacca is extremely short for a fantasy novel. Initially, the book moves at a good pace, but as the pages turn, things speed up. Months and then years pass. People who Jazen clearly has some sort of relationship with are brought on-screen for the first time without an introduction, and then ushered off page never to be seen again. By the end of the book, despite there being a lot of exorcists and apprentices that regularly wander on screen, I felt like I only knew Jazen, Vettazen, and Vettazen’s first two apprentices. The rest are just names.
If these chapters, where the pacing is moving about twice the speed of what it feels like the book can actually accommodate, were reworked and refactored so that the emphasis was on Jazen, Vettazen, magic, and the nefarious workings of our as-of-yet unknown villain, and then another 100 pages were added to the end to give Jazen’s quest to save Vettazen an appropriate amount of heft … well, then this would probably be a four-star book.
As-is, I want to rate it two-stars, but only because my expectations based on the back copy really undermined my ability to enjoy the second half of the novel. Had I gone into the book blind, I think I would have awarded it three stars, so there the rating shall remain.
Just go into The Fountains of Mirlacca with realistic expectations, and you should have a good time.
*For some reason, I visualize Vettazen as the character-actress Margo Martindale. The animated Margo Martindale, of course.
Cover art by Peter Peebles.