|The United Kingdom is celebrating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade this year. A Distant Magic, the most recent in Mary Jo Putney's "Guardian" series, joins in this commemoration. The intentions are honorable, but they get in the way of the story-telling.
Although Jean Macrae was born into a powerful Guardian clan, she has been neither particularly good at magic, nor particularly lucky in love. She lost her first love during the Scottish uprisings of 1745. After a short stint in aristocratic London social circles, she has decided to forsake any hope of marriage and family and to travel the world. She arrives in Marseille, where she is kidnapped by Captain Nikolai Gregoria.
Nikolai has never forgiven Jean's father. During a trip to Malta, the man had recognized Nikolai's latent Guardian talents and had promised him housing and training. Corsairs attacked them on the sea voyage back to England, and Macrae abandoned Nikolai to the slavers. Now free and wealthy, Nikolai has dedicated his life to two things: freeing other galley slaves and getting revenge. Since Macrae is dead, his daughter will have to do.
The enmity between Nikolai and Jean doesn't last very long, but he is still determined to exact his revenge. He takes her to the island of Santola, where freed slaves of both sexes and all races live in harmony and prosperity. No sooner have they landed than a time traveler arrives. Adia, an escaped slave with magical powers of her own, gives them a new mission: they are to travel forward in time and ensure the eventual success of the anti-slavery movement and its ultimate goal, abolition.
In the course of their voyage, they meet and influence abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, and William Wilberson. They indirectly contribute to parliamentary debates and inspire non-violent forms of protest such as the sugar boycott. At the same time, Jean learns she has untapped powers, and Nikolai unleashes the African magic that he has inherited. And of course, since this is allegedly a romance, they discover the strength that comes from working together.
I don't buy it. Putney has clearly gone over-board doing her historical research, so much so that she hasn't given much thought to character development, romance, or even plotting. Too much of the book sounds like a history lesson. Even conversations between the lovers are pretexts for retelling the long struggle to end the trade.
Nikolai and Jean are rather two-dimensional: they passionately espouse their cause, but do little else. The sexual tension, which is quite palpable in the first half of the novel, is quickly doused once they agree not to become lovers. They keep their agreement until the last third, making me wonder how intense their passion could have been if they could reign it in so tightly. Even Nikolai's dreams of revenge are quickly dispensed with (in an obvious and trite maneuver that is not befitting of a writer of Putney's talents). In short, what little development and self-discovery Nikolai and Jean undergo is incredibly forced. Adia's story is far more interesting, but it too had the tone of a Magic Treehouse book.
No wonder I quickly found myself reading for the history and not for the story. Putney does this part well, but so do most of her sources. Those interested in the events would do just as well reading them. They are more enthralling than this lukewarm romance.