Thieves & Kings Presents:
The Walking Mage

by Mark Oakley
(Ibox, 2006)

Mark Oakley's Thieves & Kings is an epic fantasy series currently some XDX volumes long, and still not quite done. It's a grand story bridging generations and continents and the gap between mortals and their legends.

And you don't have to know a word of it to enjoy Thieves & Kings Presents: The Walking Mage.

There are some connections. The world is the same. Eccentric wizard Quinton and his sarcastic imp/straight man Varkias will be familiar to fans of the larger series. But fans will also know that, in most things, Quinton works alone; and he works alone here to beautiful effect. The story fits in with the larger epic but also stands by itself, making The Walking Mage an excellent introduction to Oakley's storytelling and sense of humor.

The Walking Mage has what could be a dark and frightening story. As an evil regent battles for control of the throne in the sleepy village of Millbrook, an ageless wizard sets into play a diabolical scheme to entrap the unsuspecting villagers in a war with their innocents neighbors, leaving the town in disorder, all for his own mysterious ends.

But Quinton isn't the world's most diabolical wizard, happy claims of "a dark and dramatic inner core" notwithstanding. His plan to stir up outrage in the townsfolk amounts to a few toppled mailboxes and some painted graffiti. His illicit guerrilla soldiers, stirred up in the confusion of the moment, find themselves wearing primate masks. He announces his conspiracies aloud and in cheerful detail. Perhaps worst of all for a would-be despot, his chats with the gods are friendly breakfast conversation about old times and the weather.

All of which makes it even more frightening when Millbrook marches into war anyway, in an inexorable, nightmarish and above all familiar comedy of errors.

The bright colors and simple character art of The Walking Mage both add to the horrible dissonance of Quinton's eccentric political manipulations and allow the emotional breathing room needed for the story's unusual ending. It's also enjoyable to look at, detailed and lively, making the book fun to study even for readers to young to understand some of the humor.

Without a doubt, The Walking Mage is a work of political commentary, but it's commentary about politics rather than any specific party or person. There's offense to be found for those who seek it out, but there's a lot more comedy and a few surprising moments of hope. If some of Quinton's darker comments remind readers of current politicians, that's entirely up to the reader. There are historical analogies for Quinton's every last machination, and he can't help people finding parallels for themselves. But Oakley can make his wizard's lessons entertaining, and does so with color, wit and a sense of perspective rare to the field of commentary.

by Sarah Meador
13 January 2007