This was awesome. Spencer takes everything we love about classic epic fantasy and put it into Dragon Mage, transforming the novel into an incredible, epic, and satisfying fantasy book.
I haven’t read anything by M.L. Spencer before Dragon Mage, but that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with her name and her works. Spencer is most often known for her grimdark fantasy series, The Rhenwars Saga and The Chaos Cycle, which I’ve heard great things about but haven’t gotten around to yet; you know how it is with my infinite TBR pile. However, after seeing that stunning cover art—illustrated by Sutthiwat Dechakamphu and designed by STK.Kreations—and hearing that Dragon Mage will be an epic fantasy standalone, I was hooked, and I knew I had to read this book. Although I haven’t read any of her grimdark fantasy yet, there’s one thing for sure here, Spencer MUST write more epic fantasy like this. Dragon Mage is almost 1000 pages long—it didn’t feel that way to me—and it is one of the finest standalone fantasy books I’ve read so far.
“After you hear something so many times, it starts to define you, and it eventually becomes a prison. He had been confined by that prison all his life, and now he feared the world outside its walls.”
Dragon Mage revolves around Aram Raythe, a misfit boy living in a small village who loves knots and sees everything in colors. All his life, Aram has been shunned and treated harshly because he’s “different,” and all Aram desires in his life are to make friends. However, there is so much more to Aram, so much more; he has an immense power to challenge the gods. For the rest of the premise, I suggest you check out the official blurb provided by the author. But I think you can already surmise from what I just described that Dragon Mage is a classic epic fantasy told with a modern voice. My god, it honestly feels so GOOD to be reading a superbly written coming-of-age fantasy again, and a standalone, too, at that; great standalone are relatively rare in epic fantasy. There’s just so much to love in Dragon Mage; Spencer includes many familiar tropes such as a coming-of-age story arc for Aram and Markus, a magic school, training montages, a missing father, the wise mentor with a harsh past, an impending doom, and more into this tome. Yes, this is a big book, length-wise it’s at least a duology in one, and I think it’s the right choice to make it so. One of the biggest gripes I have with an epic fantasy standalone is that I’m often left unsatisfied when I’m done with the book, and a well-written book with a large page count has the power to negate this result. And that positive result, in my opinion, has been achieved by Spencer.
“He recognized that, while obsessing over things like knots and books might be a strength, it could also be another weakness. He could learn a lot by applying himself so obsessively—but he could lose a lot of friends doing that too. There was a delicate art to balance that he needed to find, and he vowed to strive for it.”
I could write an essay on this review about why these tropes still worked to this day—and they do!—but when it comes down to it, it’s always the characters that won my attention. Spencer’s characterizations were magnificent; it is practically impossible for me to dislike Aram. Let me assure you first that Aram isn’t a Gary Stu despite the premise. Seriously, Aram suffers so much—both mentally and physically—throughout the novel, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the main character blacked out as many times as Aram did here. His passion for knots and books was intoxicating, and he’s an incredibly relatable character that genuinely treasures friendship. Connection and friendship don’t come easy to Aram because he’s neuroatypical, and his friendship with Markus—one of the other main character—becomes one of the most precious things in the world for him.
“Aram envied him, for he didn’t know how Kye could walk into a room and within minutes feel at home with the people there. It was a skill that had always eluded him, one of the great mysteries of social interaction that everyone else in the world seemed to know instinctively—everyone but him.”
Markus is another character that I utterly loved reading about here, maybe even more than Aram. I mean, c’mon, Markus is practically the Samwise Gamgee of this book; we all need a friend like him in our life. The friendship between Aram and Markus was awe-inspiring to read; it is one of the most wonderful portrayals of friendship I’ve read in a fantasy novel, and it is one of the driving force of the narrative. Then there’s also Esmir and many other companions that Aram and Markus encountered that were easy to care for. Plus, Dragon Mage featured a bond with dragons that goes as deep as the bond between Caim and Angelus in the video game: Drakengard. However, if you’re not familiar with that video game, How to Train Your Dragon is another terrific example of the kind of friendship between humans and dragons you’ll read in this book. Responsibilities, friendships, and especially overcoming one’s weaknesses are massively evident themes in Dragon Mage, and I honestly believe that Spencer has executed them all marvelously.
“It’s true that there are some weaknesses that are outside our control. But even with those, we can usually find ways to adapt. As for weaknesses that we can control…well, life is about conquering our weaknesses and turning them into strengths. It’s how we grow as individuals. We can’t let our weaknesses limit our potential. We want to be defined by our strengths, not our shortcomings.”
This novel feels like Spencer’s love letter to classic epic fantasy, and we can see traces of its love in every part of the narrative, including the world-building. The world in Dragon Mage was torn apart long ago by an event known as the Sundering. Now there are two worlds: The World Above is the world of men, and the World Below is where most magical beings reside. However, there’s more than enough originality and charms that Spencer imbued to make Dragon Mage stands on its own feet. What Spencer did with the role of magic and how it’s used is simple and brilliant. The magic users in this book are, more often than not, super powerful, and to balance things out, there’s the role of a Shield—someone who’s completely impervious to any form of magic power—that prevents the magic users from becoming too powerfully imbalanced. There’s more to these, of course, but I’ll leave them for you to find out for yourself.
Picture: Dragon Mage full spread
I loved reading Spencer’s action sequences, too. Tornado of flame, lightning spear, and much more spectacular exhibition of magic conjured plus the exhilarating aerial battles while riding dragons—many dragons—were absolutely absorbing; Spencer’s prose flows well throughout the whole book, and these battles never felt boring. One last thing, there were sections in the book that revolves around blacksmithing in details, and as someone who loves watching weapon/armor creations and the blacksmithing process, I think Spencer has done her research well; I was geeking out, not gonna lie.
“Every day on the way to Esmir’s, he could feel his heartbeat pick up in anticipation of what he might find within a leather binding. Books, he was finding out, could be just as much of an adventure as knots, and equally rewarding.”
Dragon Mage is a compelling epic and immensely satisfying fantasy novel that will remind readers why they love classic epic fantasy in the first place. Dragon Mage was at first a one-off standalone novel, but now it has become a series. I still stand by my words that this book worked incredibly well as a standalone, though. The ending was satisfying, and there’s enough room in the story for a sequel or two should the author decides to pursue the notion. One last thing, Dragon Mage comes out on my birthday. Be a Champion; buy and read it for yourself instead. If you end up enjoying it, let me know, and I’ll consider that a birthday present for me.