The Wizard and the Rat

Wizard Master Thed Hyral Clearwater has been rendered temporarily powerless by the very tools he needs to complete his assigned task: to defeat a powerful ex-protege who is practicing the forbidden craft of necromancy.

He travels to the ironically named city of Haven, where a broad class divide, corruption,and systemic violence leave the underclass fighting for scraps – and they’re the lucky ones. There, a young thief called Rat sees an easy mark. Or so he thinks.

Rat needs one big score to pay back an enormous debt. Failure means living as a slave and prisoner of Haven, a fate Rat considers worse than death. So when Thed invites Rat on his mission, the boy accepts. But they are falling into old patterns that may doom them both.

The Wizard and the Rat is a great read. It’s gritty without being grimdark, features an openly gay protagonist who is in no way a “chosen one,” and brings up hard questions about what life in a fantasy universe would be like, without relying on tired tropes or easy squalor. In short, it is the kind of fantasy I’m always saying I wished more people would write. I look forward to more work from this author.

Rat is the ultimate underdog, a young man who has been disowned by his family and must struggle to survive in a brutal world where might is right and only the most vicious survive. Hyral is a different kind of underdog: a high status wizard whose unorthodox teaching methods set him at odds with the rest of his institution. Both men have become disillusioned with themselves and the world around them. They carry a tremendous load of guilt for their failures. While they journey toward an epic battle, they also help each other confront their own personal demons.

Engler’s writing fills the senses. The world is richly realized not just as something cartographic, but as cultures and subcultures, and the misfits who jut out like nails waiting to be hammered down. Though the story covers events that threaten cities, the book’s strength is in the compassionate, forgiving treatment of flawed individuals in dire circumstances. From the grandiose political dogma of the most powerful city-states to the smaller course of love and betrayal, problems are rendered in captivating complexity. The incessant tension of Rat’s daily life, and the far-reaching scope of Hyral’s ambitions keep the book engaging.

So while most high fantasy takes place on a superhuman scale, The Wizard and the Rat embraces a human scale. This might not appeal to all readers, but I found it to be a refreshing change from a lot of the fantasy I read. The characters were drawn in great detail, and I found myself caring as much (or more) about their search for redemption as I do for the fate of the world in more traditional fantasy stories.

I don’t make a lot of time for fantasy these days, because, quite honestly, too much of the genre either has no depth at all or goes the opposite extreme and tries to be high concept (and fails). Engler struck a rare balance between creating a complex, immersive world while still putting the story within easy reach. I was drawn in quickly, but then was pleasantly surprised to find that both main characters had real depth and were part of a fascinating world that I’d love to learn more about. I especially loved the sci-fi/fantasy interplay, especially as the details were slowly and cleverly revealed.

This is an epic tale and the beginning told in a calm style entirely befitting its characters. I wouldn’t know quite how to categorise this book as it has elements from a variety of subgenres and areas but I would certainly read the following book.

Rat is immediately sympathetic, burdened by a hard life in the Low and the stigma of being gay. I think the author did a fantastic job of conveying Rat’s homosexuality and care for the other characters in the book–in both the present story and his past, and I think it was Rat’s overwhelming ability to love, despite all the terrible things he’s suffered in his life, that really allowed me to connect to him as a character.

This book is wonderful. The world setting is both robust and believable. The characters are multidimensional and realistic. The story pulled me in from the beginning and kept me wanting more past the end. I thoroughly enjoyed not running into the same old tropes I’ve seen in a lot novels lately. Not only do I highly recommend it, I’m also now anxiously awaiting the sequel.

But I have to say this story was thrilling. It’s very simple in it’s progress. It’s mostly the story of a journey. But in between this, we get to know the past, not only of the Wizard and the Rat, who are taking this short journey together, But also the world itself and the basis of it’s magic. And there is SO MUCH back story. And it is captivating.

Excellent descriptions throughout the book really bring the scenery and world to life. From describing Rat’s inner feelings when confronted with his past to simply describing a meandering path near a river in exquisite detail, the author does not shortchange the reader, keeping up the quality of wordsmithing I have to expect from the authors I read.

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