Call of Madness by Julie Dean Smith
In the land of Caith, magic is evil. And unlike in other franchises or realities, here this conclusion isn’t so unreasonable: mages go mad and, in their delusion, use their power destructively. Thus mages are slaughtered via a religious practice known as ‘absolution.’
Curiously exempt from both the madness and the slaughter is the king’s wizard adviser. And there’s the king himself—though not born with powers, he’s worked with his adviser to gain some modicum of magic to help unification of his fractured country.
So magic is evil except when it’s applied to the rich and powerful. Well, that’s tremendously realistic.
None of this matters to Caith’s princess, Athaya. She’s bored, petulant, moody. She feels vaguely bad for the mages, but doesn’t see any alternative, and besides, it’s not her problem.
I struggled with Athaya. I’m sure the author thought that they had written a strong female character, but I assert that if you character is just contrary and reckless, that’s not strength. And dear cod is Athaya contrary and reckless. She’s no Bastard Princess—she doesn’t go out of her way to prove how strong she is—she’s just cocky and clueless. Example:
Athaya beats a man at cards in a dingy tavern. He angrily accuses her of cheating. She mocks him. Because of her arrogance, I assumed she’s a whiz at knife-play or has a burly friend nearby to intercede on her behalf. Nope. Aggressive man steals her dagger, marches her upstairs at knifepoint, and tries to rape her. She gets a lucky shot at his balls and escapes, leaving him in a crumpled pile. And then … she stays at the tavern?
I know she’s a princess used to a decent amount of privilege, but that didn’t save her when he first attacked her. She was very, very nearly raped. Why is she sticking around?
Naturally, he sends friends to get revenge. They STEAL HER DAGGER AGAIN. Why does she even carry that thing? It seems more a danger than an asset.
She gives them a withering look. “Do you mind?” she says, as if they’re playing keep-away with her hat.
Bitch, the man who tried to rape you sent friends and they just stole your dagger. Do you have no innate sense of self-preservation?
Sure, this is chapter one. She needs to have flaws so she can grow before our eyes. I get that, but her behavior is so contrary to how almost anyone else would react in this situation that my ability to suspend disbelief is stretched thiiiiin.
And while I won’t get into spoilers yet, I would argue that she never evolves past this reckless, selfish, and contrarian behavior. Her causes may get loftier, she may finally have some sort of moral conviction, but she’s still foolish. Worse, I’d say she becomes more selfish as the book goes on. Sneaking off to play cards in a bad tavern is one thing—if things go sideways, she’ll only hurt herself. Her decisions going forward, however…
I guess in general I have an issue with characterization. Athaya is clueless and reckless and selfish despite being brave and noble and self-sacrificing; she’s whatever is convenient for advancing the plot. Everyone around Athaya, however, is either 100% her ally or enemy. The allies’ loyalty never wavers and the enemies are so single-mindedly ruthless about Athaya that they’re one-dimensional, which is neither realistic nor interesting. Any time the story poses a question about the potential actions of a character, you can predict the answer with certainty, so long as you’re paying attention to the narrative.
Which, I admit, I struggled with for the first 100 pages because the only plot was Athaya being like “Ugh, I don’t want to get married off to some prince, I want to marry my hunky captain-of-the-guard boyfriend. But my shitty father is probably right and I should be a better daughter even though I don’t care what he thinks. Also, bummer about the ritualistic slaughter of mages thing.”
Now, I would normally consider something that happens 100 pages deep in a book to be a spoiler, but if the back copy doesn’t worry about divulging it, then neither do I: Athaya is a latent mage.
Finally there’s a hook. Hell, there’s even the hint of a series-worthy plot. Huzzah!
That feeling lasted for a few pages before returning to the quality of the first hundred pages for another hundred pages.
Call of Madness did end on a massive upswing. Despite Athaya continuing to be Athaya, the last 125 pages were legitimate page turners. Awesome concepts were introduced, and more than one thing came entirely out of left-field and left me agape in a good way.
Other reviews that say this isn’t a standard fantasy are correct. It’s neither Tolkien-esque, nor does it fall into that camp of medieval-style fantasy where political intrigue and foreign wars rule the plot. There’s not a single monster, and while there is magic and it’s integral to the plot, it’s not a crutch. There are serious positives to be said about the book, though all of them are straight-up spoilers.
I’m half-tempted to keep reading the series, since it feels like the author hit her stride as Call of Madness came to a close, but I don’t think I’m going to.
One reason is a lack of attention to detail. For example, the relationship between Athaya’s brother, Nicolas, and her captain-of-the-guard boyfriend, Tyler. When the two first interact on screen, Tyler refers to Nicolas in all-seriousness as “Your highness,” and Nicolas gets all “Ew, no. Just call me Nicolas.”
About a day later Tyler and Nicolas are together and Nicolas teases Tyler lightly. Tyler responds with the equivalent of “Knock it off, you knucklehead.”
There’s no way he’s made that mental leap in a day, especially when this is royalty v non-royalty. That sort of social conditioning runs deep. I’m 32 and I still can’t bring myself to call my best friend’s mother by her first name—even though she asked me to at least 15 years ago. The thought of calling her names, even jokingly, straight-up mortifies me.
Then, near the end of the book, Athaya reflects back on the fact that Nicolas has been good friends with Tyler for years.
But … on page seventeen it’s absolutely clear that Tyler and Nicolas have no personal relationship whatsoever, and the book covers less than years’ time. It’s impossible that they’ve been “good friends” for years.
That might not seem like a big deal, but for me it’s huge. Someone—either the author or the editor—should have caught that. And yet it’s still there, presumably to help the story-telling, plot, and emotional engagement of the reader. But if the facts of the story are that malleable from beginning to end of book one—I not sure I want to know what liberties are taken between book one and book four.
The author also doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on POV. Call of Madness is mostly Athaya’s POV—except when it’s convenient to let the internal state of any of the other characters known.
Oh, and this is just a serious pet-peeve, but I abhor when authors refer to grown-ass sexual women as “young girls.” If a young boy is, like, under the age of 9, then a young girl is, too. There’s no such thing as a “buxom young girl,” as described in this book about a pointedly sexual bar maid.
My other points are spoilers, so, continue with caution.
When Athaya learns that she’s a mage, she also learns that without proper training she’ll go irreversibly mad. She’s like “Okay, cool, but I’m a little worried about my shitty-fucking-father, so Imma roll back to my kingdom—a two week or so trip—to try to make amends with this guy who has never shown me an ounce of kindness. That’s cool, right? I’ll be back.”
And when the mage is like “Noooooooo. You don’t have much time. You’ll lose control of your powers, prolly hurt someone, then die,” she’s like “Welp, it is what it is. Peace.”
Then, back in Caith, shit goes absolutely sideways with her father. He attacks her, she uses magic in self-defense and then … loses control and kills him. She magically (pun intended) manages to escape, but then tells her two allies “You know what, I really want to go to the funeral even though I’ve been charged with treason and there’s a warrant for my arrest and they’ll definitely kill all of us if we’re caught.”
She doesn’t have a particularly good reason to go to the funeral, other than guilt and wanting a sense of closure. Her allies are like “but seriously this is a bad idea—even with magic this’ll prolly fall apart and if it does we’re super dead,” and she’s like “Welp, it is what it is. Peace.”
It goes badly. The three of them are arrested. Eventually she manages to escape and rescue ally number one. Then they go to rescue ally number two: Tyler, her beloved. Instead they find his head on a pike.
She’s shocked, but she doesn’t beat herself up for literally insisting on an unnecessary scheme with a high chance of failure that her companions tried to talk her out of that had no benefit to anyone but herself. She does, however, continue to beat herself up for accidentally killing her father in self-defense.
(Bad Feminist Analysis: let your father marry you off, and your beloved’s head won’t end up on a pike.)
This is selfish on the obvious level: she risks her friends’ lives for emotional closure. It’s selfish on another level, though. See, she’s taken up the mantle of ‘Savior of the Mages.” She plans to end the genocide of mages in her country by showing that with proper training, they don’t have to be insane and destructive … by abandoning her training and risking insanity to go on a selfish personal quest to seek reconciliation with a man she’s seemingly never given two shits about. And while she’s there, she’ll go on a series of high-risk, high-profile magical capers that, if caught, will only further convince the powers-that-be that magic is, in fact, super evil.
On the one hand, hitting these plot beats felt right—that’s why the end of the book was a page-turner despite Athaya’s stupidity. She needs to lose some power and dig herself into a hole or else the task before her would be too simple. The problem is the impetus for her to lose that power feels contrived. Why does she suddenly care so much about the man she’s up-until-now thought so little about? Because it advances the plot in ways the author needs to hit the beats that make the book work.
Had there been more concrete reasons for Athaya’s actions—say, something she needed to retrieve from her father’s body to advance her quest to save the mages—then I’d buy her insistence of attending the funeral. But I have a hard time believing that she would put the one of the two people in the world she loves—Tyler—at risk for a half-assed attempt at closure with a dead man who tried to kill her.
Okay, so I’ve trashed this novel pretty hard, but there are a few things I really liked. Take, for example, Tyler’s head on a pike. At first it seemed ridiculous—almost impossible. But that feeling of “but this this simply isn’t done!” quickly turned into appreciation. I loved its reversal of the dead-girlfriend trope. Here, for once, it’s a loving boyfriend biting the dust and giving the girlfriend greater purpose and strength.
Also, at one point a man literally explodes from magic and Athaya, her back against the wall, grabs a shard of femur to use as a weapon. How fucking badass is that? I whooped out loud when it happened.
And, as previously stated, the beats were so right on the last 125ish pages that I read it in one sitting. There is good here. And it’s entirely possible that in a month I’ll still be kicking Call of Madness around in my head and, if I am, I’ll pick up the next book in the series. I wouldn’t count on it, though.
Cover art by Michael Herring: