In Carol Berg's The Spirit Lens, the first novel of the Collegia Magica trilogy, no one is as they seem and a pretty face may be a mere illusion masking a wicked heart...
Portier de Duplais, former student of magic, current head-librarian and obscure relation to Phillipe, the King of Sabria, is summoned unexpectedly and charged to discovery who is behind an attempt on the King's life. In his new position as agente confide, Portier is unable to trust anyone, even his fellow agentes. Unfortunately, the mystery isn't so simple as an assassination plot. It involves the abduction of Phillipe's closest friend, the acquisition of three very strange magic objects taken from Phillipe's would-be assassin, necromancy, multiple murders, untimely accidents and a network of intricate deception. With all fingers pointed accusingly at Philippe's wife, the Queen Eugenie, Portier must uncover who among the growing list of suspects masks their evil intent and who is truly innocent before his own life (and soul) becomes forfeit to the long-buried magic uncovered by his probing.
At first, The Spirit Lens is a barrage of names that I found to be a bit overwhelming. However, as the book goes on, each and every one of these seemingly innocuous people has great relevance to the plot. The Spirit Lens is a plot-driven tale with allot of ground to cover, and there is absolutely no time for dallying. In the prologue Portier is handed the Problem at Hand and from chapter one to its conclusion, we are hurtling together down a twisting path to solve that problem. As the reader, I was kept guessing, making hypothesis, and forced to change my mind when a lead didn't follow through--much like Portier.
There are two points that prevented me from giving this book a five-star review, though. First: While I found Berg's side characters interesting from the get-go, it took nearly half the volume to warm up to Portier. I just couldn't get a firm grasp of the kind of person he is. This is very surprising after reading books such as Berg's Rai-Kirah trilogy and the Lighthouse Duet, both narrated by men with very definitive points of view.
Second: The mystery is the driving force behind the novel and is unquestionably gripping (I devoured the entire novel in two days). However, because of the rapid pace of the book, I felt that I never got a firm grasp of the world that Sabria resides in. Once again, this was disappointing because in the aforementioned books by Berg, the world-building is expert. In those books I felt I had a firm grasp of the cultures, the time-periods, everything. The series are steeped in definitive moods that are unique to their individual stories. In The Spirit Lens, I didn't have that strong sense of place and time. Certainly, the characters have french-sounding names and their mannerism hint toward Renaissance-era Italy, but those connections are not very descriptive of the world Sabria rests in.
The conclusion of The Spirit Lens sets up nicely for the next book,with some loose threads neatly clipped and others left flapping in the wind. There is much promised for book two and I hope further volumes will expand upon this world Berg has begun to create, and bring Portier's personality out. Despite my complaints, I imagine the revelations in store will continue to surprise. I eagerly await the next volume of the Collegia Magica trilogy.