Genre: Fantasy Romance
MASTER OF CROWS
After a thousand years of exiled sleep, an ancient malice awakens, intent on reclaiming dominion over the world. The high priests of the Gray Conclave search desperately for a way to destroy it. In a crumbling fortress, a renegade sorcerer known as the Master of Crows struggles against succumbing to the entity’s power, even as his new apprentice seeks to win her freedom from life-long servitude by betraying him.
MARTISE of Asher, sold as a child into servitude by her poverty-stricken family, is a bondswoman in a Conclave bishop’s household. Born with the talent of total recall and a magic that has not yet revealed itself, the priests of Conclave consider her a perfect candidate to spy on a rebellious and powerful wizard they suspect of treachery. In exchange for her services as an informant, her master will revoke her articles of indenture that bind her to his household for a period of forty years. It is a risky endeavor, but she agrees and travels to the mage’s stronghold to play the role of apprentice.
SILHARA of Neith, Master of Crows, sends a request to Conclave for a novice mage to help with manuscript translations. Because of his refusal to swear allegiance to the order and his reputation as a dabbler in the black arcana, he expects a refusal. What he gets is a spy. He suspects Martise is no Conclave student but cannot reject her as it will raise suspicions even more that he has something to hide. He does. The fallen god known as the Corruption has broken its bonds set by an ancient Conclave and seeks an avatar to help it regain control over a world that has mostly forgotten it. It is slowly seducing the bitter Silhara with visions of supremacy, weakening him so that it may take possession of his mind and soul.
The story begins with Martise taking her place in her new master’s home, intent on fulfilling her mission. She is at first unprepared to deal with the volatile and ruthless Silhara. His training is rigorous, sometimes deadly, and it is obvious he is trying to intimidate her into running away. Still, as the weeks pass, and they both try to discover the key to unlocking her magic, she finds herself increasingly fascinated by him. He shows flashes of kindness and humor to the members of his small household and sympathy for outcasts like himself. It becomes harder for her to reconcile her purpose at Neith with her deepening feelings for him.
As Silhara struggles to resist the Corruption’s influence, he searches for a way to destroy it. He finds a manuscript telling of an ancient ritual that may do just that. Two of the pages detailing the ceremony are missing. One is held in the possession of a powerful lich, the other by a hostile mountain tribe. He bargains successfully with the tribe for their page but must fight the lich for the second page. He almost loses his life and is saved by Martise whose magic manifests itself when he needs it most. She is a life-giver, able to channel her life force for healing, and in darker rites, for resurrection. Life-givers are rare and coveted as slaves by the more powerful sorcerers.
Martise is unaware that her talent may be more of a curse than a blessing, but Silhara knows and insists on teaching her how to use and hide her ability. Despite their hostile beginnings, he has come to admire her intelligence, compassion and fortitude. The sharing of her life force with him only heightens his growing attraction to her, and he considers extending her apprenticeship for more personal reasons.
The two become lovers and find some happiness together. But that happiness is short-lived. Silhara discovers that the ritual’s success may hinge on the sacrifice of a life-giver, and Martise witnesses the Corruption take temporary possession of Silhara. It is the evidence she needs to damn him. She flees Neith and returns to the bishop, but cannot bring herself to betray Silhara to the Conclave. She tells him she has found nothing and gives him a letter she forged stating that her apprenticeship has been revoked for “insurmountable incompetence.”
Silhara shares most of his knowledge he gained from the manuscript with Conclave. But he withholds the information relating to the sacrifice of a life-giver. Instead, he proposes a different plan -- one which will probably result in his own death. He cannot bring himself to betray Martise’s secret any more than she could betray his. Conclave accepts his plan and his role in it.
As Silhara and the clerics gather on an ancient tor to confront the Corruption, Martise learns of the ceremony and what it entails. She is stunned by Silhara’s silence regarding her ability and the fact that he will risk himself and a world to protect her. She embarks on a desperate journey to reach the tor in time and participate in the ritual, even if it means dying in the process.
The battle is fierce, but Conclave triumphs, ultimately annihilating the malevolent god. Silhara and Martise both survive, though the ritual has caused her to permanently lose her gift. The two are separated in the aftermath of the confrontation and subsequent celebrations.
Despite her role as one of the saviors, she has failed in her mission to expose Silhara and remains an indentured servant to the disappointed bishop. He soon sells her articles by proxy to another master, and she discovers it is Silhara who has bought them. He burns them, telling her she is no longer bound to any master. Martise tells him that she is bound to him by far more than her contract. He kisses her. “Life-giver,” he says, “I loved you even before you breathed your spirit into me.”
Well! Who knew this could be done! A fantasy that isn’t awash in detail and confusing vocabulary! Yet, here it is! We get a sense of the characters, how they change and develop, the challenges they face, and a sense of the alternate world. We can understand unfamiliar things from context. Good!