There’s something to be said about a book that truly surprises its readers with an unexpected message. Dark Wizard by Jeffe Kennedy certainly falls into that category. I went into this book assuming classic Fantasy-Romance content, and while the book certainly delivered on genre expectations, it genuinely surprised me with how it tied romance into its unique world-building and magic system and used it as a social commentary on slavery and self-worth. Thought-provoking and sometimes necessarily uncomfortable in its message, Dark Wizard is the first book in Kennedy’s Bonds of Magic series. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 25/02/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Lord Gabriel Phel wants one thing: to restore his shattered House to its former station in the Convocation’s complex and arcane society. Fortunately, through a wild chance of birth, he was born with the magic of a powerful wizard, the first in his family in generations. If he can obtain a familiar to supplement his skills, ideally one who is a highborn daughter who can also be his lady wife, then he’ll be that much closer to restoring House Phel. And to exacting his ultimate revenge on the Convocation that destroyed his family.
Lady Veronica Elal doesn’t have many choices. To her bitter disappointment, she will never be the powerful wizard she and her father hoped she’d be. Instead Nic is doomed to be a familiar like her mother, a second-class citizen in the Convocation, and one destined to be bonded to a wizard, serving his purposes for the rest of her life. Her one hope lies in entering the Betrothal Trials—and choosing a wizard from the Convocation candidates that she can manipulate. Whichever one of her suitors impregnates her will claim her as familiar and wife, and she can use her wiles to rule her wizard master, and the House she marries into.
But Gabriel throws a wrench into Nic’s careful scheming, by seducing and fascinating her. When she finds she’s pregnant by the rogue wizard she can never hope to control, Nic does the unthinkable: she runs.
At its core, Dark Wizard delivers a powerful message about slavery, self-worth, and how our world view and possibilies for self are shaped through the lens of our upbringing and societal expectations. Kennedy’s world-building focuses on a magic system and a social structure that has developed around that system. In this world, magic is the purview of wizards – they alone can wield magic and they do so under the contracts of their particular house and the laws of the Convocation. But magic is also held by familiars, and this is where the conflict arises and the world-building gets interesting. Familiars can hold as much magic as a Wizard, but they can’t use it – their magic must be channeled for use by a wizard – creating an unbalanced power dynamic in which a familiar is magically bound in servitude to a wizard, their entire lives relegated to providing a fountain of magic for their wizard to pull from, having no agency to change their fate or shape a purpose of their own.
At first, I was taken aback and (honestly) a bit disgusted by the brutal concept of the Betrothal Trials. When a familiar is ready to be bonded to a wizard, they are paired each month with a new candidate to determine the couple’s “productivity” (so-to-speak) – they bed each other to find out if they can get pregnant, thereby ensuring a magical bloodline. If the pair gets pregnant that month, they are bonded, and the familiar enters a life of servitude to the wizard. If not, they are repaired, and the process continues until pregnancy occurs. Like I said, brutal. But once I got deeper into the book, I understood the Betrothal Trials to be part of the larger, complex world-building that really is an allegory for slavery and a construction necessary for delivering important messages about slavery and self-worth. I should point out that these pairings are not based on gender – the wizard-familiar bond can happen between any combination of genders, and I really love that Kennedy took gender out of this discussion all together.
The Romance plot of this book is interwoven with what I believe will be the ongoing series arc – dismantling the caste system enforced by the Convocation. Gabriel summarily rejects the ideals and strictures set up around the power dynamic betwen familiars and wizards, because his upbringing was not shaped by the Convocation. He doesn’t base his self-worth, or that of others, on magical potential. He wants to bond and marry Nic out of love and trust. Unfortunately, Nic’s upbringing was vastly different, and her entire life and world view has been shaped by the Convocation. She struggles with a relationship based in true love and trust, the very concepts to her impossible given the power dynamic and expectations of the wizard-fimilar bond. Can they ever be sure that they’ve truly won each other’s hearts, or are they merely compelled to each other by their stations? The contrast between Gabriel and Nic’s world views – the potential for new, versus the confines of the old – and the ideals that have been ingrained in them since birth form the basis of a fascinating relationship that has so much potential for both evolution and growth.
Another clever aspect of Gabriel and Nic’s relationship that stems from their upbringings revolves around Gabriel’s use of magic. Because he is new to the world of magic and wasn’t formally trained by the Convocation, he often forgets he’s an incredibly powerful Wizard, reaching for his sword instead of using magic. Nic was the top of her class at the academy, and even though she cannot use magic herself and is supposed to be “less than” a wizard, she has all the training and knowledge Gabriel needs to understand and use his skills, adding depth and nuance to this unbalanced power dynamic central to the book’s plot and themes.
For the Romance readers out there, this series does follow the same couple, and there are open questions at the end of the first book. There is significant room for an interesting evolution in both the relationship between Gabriel and Nic as well as their relationship to the Convocation, which makes the lack of a tidy HEA understadable and necessary. I’m looking forward to reading on in the series and seeing how this all unfolds!