The Aware by Glenda Larke. ★★★1/2
Trigger warning for sexual assault
The Aware is the first book in a second world fantasy series about Blaze Halfbreed. Blaze is searching for a mysterious Circasian woman on the spit, a lawless stretch of sand where the Isles of Glory send their unwanted. Along the way she encounters enough dunmagic, an evil form of magic that corrupts other magic users, to pose a threat to the entire Isles.
Blaze is one of the aware, people who can see and sense magic even if they cannot use it themselves. She is of mixed race, her parents coming from different islands. This heritage makes her despised and citizenless. She survives by working as a spy and assassin for the Keepers, the “good” magic users who have almost uncontested control over all the islands.
What I found most interesting about The Aware was the use of a framing device. The book starts with a letter written by a young anthropologist from a culture that seems sort of like Victorian England. He’s done some studies in the Islands of Glory which included interviewing Blaze as an old woman. The events in the book is what Blaze told him about her life. He is doubtful about her claims of magic and otherworldly creatures – in the present day, there is no magic in the islands. Unlike so many stories of magic returning to the world, it looks like this series will be about magic leaving it.
The Aware had some good world building ideas, but it fell flat in places. I loved the idea of a bunch of interacting islands, and I liked some of the creatures and magics Larke invented. However, I just never felt as intensely involved in the world as I would have liked. It lacked the vivid quality I find in the best built worlds.
Blaze is a fairly familiar character type – tough female mercenary, but she was well enough constructed even if she never exactly wowed me. I did like that she had an important female friend. However, I did feel that she became friends with everyone else a bit too quickly. She goes from being the friendless, hardened mercenary to making connections and caring about people within the span of a few days? It felt too sudden.
There was also something about Blaze and Flame, the female friend that bugged me. They are continually mistaken for lovers, and Blaze will then go on to assert her heterosexuality, except for once where she plays along and gives a speech about accepting gay people. However, there are no textual LGBTQ characters in the book. Something about all of this felt really off to me.
In reference to the trigger warning at the start of the review, the sexual assault that takes place within the main events of the story does not happen to Blaze and it is not explicitly shown. However, given that it does have a significant presence in the story and that Blaze herself has sexual assault in her backstory, I figured I’d err on the side of warning people in advance.
I did like The Aware, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to anyone. In all likelihood, I won’t read the next one in the series.