Image of Arcanum
Release Date: 
January 26, 2014
Reviewed by: 

Arcanum is a must-read for any fantasy fan.”

Author Simon Morden has crafted a phenomenal work of fantasy in Arcanum centered on a single compelling question: What would happen if a civilization that relied on magic was suddenly abandoned by the magic?

Set a thousand years after Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 ACE, the German-speaking palatinate Carinthia is a seat of European power. Alaric and his wild tribesmen had used magic to defeat the Romans and his descendants have ruled since then. Gerhard, king of Carinthia, is used to an easy life.

War is held during the short summer months and often won by the hexmasters who rarely interact with the world around them except to exact their price, which turns out to be more than gold. Trade and life flourishes thanks to a seemingly unending supply of magic. Barges can move up or downstream, carts do not need horses, farming is no longer back-breaking.

The only real worry many citizens have is over taxes or trolls coming too soon down mountain paths and interrupting trade. But Peter Büber, the king’s huntsman, is worried. He has found two unicorn horns with no bodies attached; another child has disappeared without a trace; and Teuton warriors threaten Carinthia’s borders, clamoring for war if they will not be granted passage across their lands.

Anticipating answers and strategic suggestions from hexmasters, Gerhard calls for their presence, but one answers, and she is only an adept. Nikoleta Agana, loyal to Gerhard and his son, swears to use what abilities she has to aid in the impeding battle against the Tetuons. Meanwhile, Büber’s friend, Frederik Thaler looks for answers to these and other questions in books. Books Thaler has problems reading because the magic lights of the great library have suddenly gone out.

The magic that supported Carinthia for a thousand years has stopped. Life has come to a standstill for citizens while in the Jewish quarter life continues as if nothing happened—magic is not kosher. Unwed and rebellious Sophia Morgenstern has answers for the citizens, answers they do not want to hear: learn from the Jews, learn to do for themselves what they have relied upon magic for. Yet some citizens prefer the option presented by Eckhardt, the last hexmaster: Daily sacrifices of people will allow him to bring the magic back.

Among the cast of fantastic characters are Aaron Morgenstern, Sophia’s despairing father, Gerhard’s son Felix, and Max Ullman a librarian usher-turned-spymaster in the new days that follow in a gritty landscape filled with impeccable details and sensory realism such that a reader is there, among these people, on a dusty march to war or in the crowded market streets. The only times Mr. Morden drops the reader from the tight grip he has him in throughout this densely packed novel of adventure and fantasy occur briefly and are soon forgotten. Arcanum is a must-read for any fantasy fan.