Warlock in Training by T J Nichols
Published by: DSP Publications
Genre: urban fantasy/paranormal romance
Reviewed by: Edwin
What to Expect: A well-realised urban fantasy world with undercurrents of queer romance and environmental allegory. Also features warlock/demon boning and flashes of humor.
Plot: Angus Donohue doesn’t want to be a warlock. He believes draining demons for magic is evil, but it’s a dangerous opinion to have—his father is a powerful and well-connected warlock, and Angus is expected to follow the family tradition.
His only way out is to fail the demon summoning class. Failure means expulsion from the Warlock College. Despite Angus’s best efforts to fumble the summoning, it works. Although not the way anyone expects.
Angus’s demon, Saka, is a powerful mage with his own need for a warlock.
Saka wants to use Angus in a ritual to rebalance the magic that is being stripped from Demonside by warlocks. If Angus survives his demon’s desires and the perils of Demonside, he’ll have to face the Warlock College and their demands.
Angus must choose: obey the College and forget about Demonside or trust Saka and try to fix the damage before it’s too late. Whatever he does, he is in the middle of a war he isn’t qualified to fight.
In a lot of ways, this is not the book you think you’re getting when you read the first few paragraphs. We open mid demon-summoning class, with our protagonist, Angus, doing his level best to fail to summon a demon and therefore flunk out of Warlock College. Unfortunately he succeeds despite himself, and summons the very powerful Saka. Who immediately kidnaps Angus and takes him back to Demonside. So far, so comic urban fantasy. And while we do get flashes of humor throughout the book – Nichols’ writing is certainly not joyless – Warlock in Training rapidly resolves into something rather more serious.
Upon his arrival in Demonside, Angus discovers that what he is taught at Warlock College is far from the full picture about how magic works. Demonside and the human world are two different dimensions that exist side by side, and magic is the process of pulling energy from one dimension to the other. Warlocks do this by drawing power directly from demons, which disrupts the equilibrium between the dimensions. This in turn seriously disrupts the environment of both worlds, Demonside in particular. In short, there is a looming ecological catastrophe, and it’s one that those in power in the human world – most notably Angus’ father – have real incentives to ignore. The parallels between this situation and climate change in the real world are too close to ignore: I feel it must be a deliberate comparison, and it works well. The leading Warlocks see their own society hurtling towards a catastrophe, but do nothing about it because it would threaten their own power. Both in reality and in this book, inertia is a powerful force.
What is needed to stave off environmental collapse is a rebalancing of magic. While Warlocks draw on demons in the human world to cast spells, demon Mages can draw on humans to cast spells and help restore the environment in Demonside. They can do this through one of three methods: blood, soul… and sex (I should add that the worldbuilding here is done very skilfully. We know all the basic parameters of the human world, Demonside, and the major plot concerns within 3 chapters, and nothing ever feels like infodumping). Saka, Angus’ demon, happens to prefer sex magic, for both humanitarian and pragmatic reasons: while you can get a lot of magic out of a human simply by sacrificing them, sex is an infinitely renewable resource. Angus also eventually realises he’s attracted to Saka (there is no big drama here; Angus is happily and openly gay), and a large part of the character interaction between the two is working out what it means that they value each other – and want to have sex with each other – outside of the magical context.
Angus and Saka are appealing main characters. Both in their way deeply moral men, both committed to doing what is right for their societies. Angus is a bit clueless (which makes him our proxy in learning about the world), and Saka smart and experienced. Saka has been dealing with oppression for a long time, while Angus is the privileged son of a leading Warlock. The relationship between the two, at least in this book, is not quite a romance, but they do grow close. The competing cultural understandings of what relationships are well done; they talk respectfully about it but don’t quite understand each other, as you wouldn’t – human and demon societies are quite different. It will be interesting to see where this goes in book two.
Outside Angus and Saka’s relationship, the general plot arc is satisfying, containing family drama, a shadowy resistance movement, demon politics (rather bloody!), sex magic, battles, and a good, clear setup for the next book, while also leaving us at a sensible stopping point. A book that provokes thought as it entertains. Recommended.
What you might not like/doesn’t work for you: Does not contain a full blown romance (though there are one or two possible romantic threads to be explored in the next book).
What you will love: A kickass demon lead character. Expertly sketched worldbuilding, and if you like a political slant to your fiction, the themes this book explores will be really satisfying.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else? Connect with Edwin on Twitter.