When I was a kid I loved pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, with a couple of exceptions. First among these was Noddy (that little prat). Second was Fatty, the so-called “hero” of the Five Find-Outers series. Fatty was a rich, boastful boor (who was obsessed with “slimming”, though he never seemed to lose any weight), and his adventures left me with a long-running distaste for tales of the English upper-class.
The Laws of Magic novels, of which Blaze of Glory is part one, are about Aubrey Fitzwilliam – a very rich, very clever, very absurdly named English toff who attends a posh boarding school and is the son of a prominent politician. By rights I should hate him. But I don’t, and I think it’s because Michael Pryor is playing with the conventions of a genre I once loathed.
And doing an awfully good job of it. For example: Aubrey’s best chum George constantly calls him “old man”. And at one stage he dresses himself up as a street urchin called Tommy Sparks. Tommy Sparks! Brilliant.
Superficially, Laws of Magic is a lot like Harry Potter: both are about slight, dark-haired, magically gifted teenagers with a knack for landing themselves in the thick of mysterious events. But Blaze of Glory is rife with a political intrigue that’s absent from the Potter novels (from the early ones, at least): it’s set in an alternate universe in the early 20th century, as “Albion” is on the verge of war with “Holmland” (stand-ins for England and Germany, respectively).
Aubrey and George are invited to a shooting weekend at the Crown Prince’s palatial country estate, joined by politicians, aristocrats and foreign diplomats. Aubrey foils an attempt on the Prince’s life when he discovers a golem sent on an assassination mission – but who sent the golem, and why?
The subsequent investigation cracks along, bringing Aubrey and George into encounters with many sharply written, memorable characters. Foremost among these is Aubrey’s romantic interest Caroline Hepworth (though she’s not nearly as interested in him), who’s rather Hermione-esque – if Hermione were not merely intelligent but also aloof, elegant and skilled at hand-to-hand combat.
The magic in Laws is a complicated business. In Harry Potter it bothered me a little that casting spells seemed to involve little more than waving a wand; here, spells must be cast with an almost mathematical precision, and the complexity of all those variables and parameters is satisfying. Aubrey is a magical prodigy, of course, but his skill is not limitless. A botched magical experiment has separated his body and his soul, and the danger he’s put himself in and his attempts to fix himself are constant threads in the story.
Quibbles: some of the plot twists are contrived even by the standards of the genre, particularly a scene where Aubrey and co. just so happen to visit a fitness club that’s the scene of a violent confrontation between Holmland spies, secret agents and magical operatives. And the book’s editor should’ve given the manuscript another once-over before it went to print, because it’s strewn with typos and repeated words – not many, but enough to be distracting.
Blaze‘s climax lacks a real oomph, but this didn’t really bother me because Pryor has crafted such a rich fantasy world – it’s so compelling that I bought part two, Heart of Gold, before I’d even finished part one. It’s inventive, witty, and a fine read.
(PS, I have no idea why there’s a phoenix on the cover. I waited the whole book for it to appear, and it never did. Weird.)