by Ian Rae
284 pages, Kennedy & Boyd
Review by Hereward L. M. Proops
Magic is such a difficult thing to pull off in fiction. There's so many books out there featuring magicians, sorcerers, warlocks, witches, wizards, shamans and druids that it is hard to find any original angle from which to tackle it. I recently gave up on a book by a bestselling Australian author (who shall remain nameless) that was not only badly written, but also featured some spectacularly dull magic which seemed ripped from the rule book of some godawful roleplaying game. J.K. Rowling's watered-down wizardry makes the fantastic so mundane that it loses all sense of wonder and spectacle. Magic should be vague and mysterious. It should be used sparingly in fiction so that its impact is that much greater. The great J.R.R. Tolkien knew this... early on in “The Lord of the Rings”, Gandalf's wizardry is little more than conjuring tricks. It's only when Tolkien resurrects the character as Gandalf the White that he really pulls out the magical big guns and lets the readers see just how powerful and awe-inspiring magic can be.
Ian Rae is an Australian author of Scottish ancestry. He also writes magic very well indeed. Those in search of magic missiles, broomsticks and dramatically flowing robes would be advised to look elsewhere, preferably in the children's section. “The Wizard from the Isles” is a mature and thoughtful novel that is as much about human nature as it is a work of fantasy.
The first instalment of a proposed trilogy, the novel tells the story of Robbie Taran, a wizard born in the late nineteenth century in the Outer Hebrides. From an early age he discovers that he isn't like other children. He can light fires without matches, read thoughts and choke people from a distance. However, he soon learns that vulgar displays of his powers only attract unwanted attention and resolves to keep his strange abilities hidden. Robbie's eventful life takes him from the islands to the mainland where he trains as a doctor, falls in love with an older woman, works with the shell-shocked survivors of the first world war before moving to America to work as a psychiatrist. Although much of the story sees Robbie going about his life in the real world, he is able to make use of his magical powers in subtle ways, such as soothing the troubled minds of veterans of the Somme. It is only when Robbie moves to France before the outbreak of the Second World War that he truly begins to develop his powers as a wizard.
Rae's writing flows wonderfully and though the novel covers a span of more than eighty years, he never allows the tale to become bogged down with unnecessary details. The years slip by as Robbie grows in power and by the end of the novel he has developed into not just a wise old man but also a magical force to be reckoned with. Rae's clever blending of real-world history with supernatural forces helps to create a subtle atmosphere of magic that the reader accepts without question.
What is most commendable of the novel is the fantastic sense of time and place. It is clear that Rae has travelled well and pored through his history books whilst researching this book and the result is a piece of fiction which is utterly absorbing and believable. My only criticism is that whilst the first half of the novel is tightly plotted, one gets the feeling that it somewhat loses its way about three-quarters of the way through and meanders for a while as Robbie relates a series of unrelated magical encounters. This is not likely to spoil most people's enjoyment of the book as Rae brings the tale to an uplifting conclusion which manages to be touching without being overly-sentimental. This is a work of fantasy grounded in reality and this realism gives it a heart and soul above and beyond other works in the genre. Truly magical.
Hereward L. M. Proops