I recognize and accept that I've been on a warpath and probably been too critical of some things. Studying for standardized testing will do that to even the most well adjusted people. And I'm not claiming to be well adjusted. However, a good book should be able to get the surliest/most sleep deprived/most strung out reader and get them to relax and enjoy the story.
The Black Mage: First Year by Rachel E. Carter was able to do that.
I love the cover. The emphasis on red/orange against the black is visually pleasing and this is once again one of those rare covers that actually relates to the book. It doesn't feel like a photoshopped photo-manipulation that was pieced together just to have a cover. It is deliberate and well composed. The negative space is not just empty but has dimension to it. And I really want Ryiah's boots. Just sayin'.
Ryiah and her twin brother, Alex, have decided to not take the easy way out. The advent of their magic has compelled them on a tortuous road, trying to acquire one of the 15 apprenticeships available to study at the war schools that year. This is not Harry Potter where nobody drops out and nobody gets held back. (I mean, Crabbe and Goyle made it through.) It is a dangerous journey just getting to the school, nevermind surviving the training and later, the tests.
There is backstabbing, elitism and competition to deal with and that is even before the training begins. Ryiah struggles, her magic not as strong as her brothers and she only makes it worse for herself when she picks the most challenging faction, Combat. There is extensive physical training and then hours of meditation and studying on top of that. Ryiah can barely keep up to begin with but her instructors do not seem to have much faith in her and refuse to help her improve. Then there is the prince...
Darren is the second-in-line to the throne and the first prince to ever attend the Academy to compete for the apprenticeships. He is snobbery at its finest but he deserves it. Darren is incredibly strong and powerful, showing both his physical and magical prowess easily. A chance encounter brings Darren and Ryiah together and they forge a tenuous friendships based off of not ratting each other out. Everybody here is striving for one thing though and it is never a good idea to make friends if you are hoping for their ultimate failure.
1) Loved Ryiah. She was tough as nails but not inhumanly so. She had her weaknesses and thank God, she actually wasn't good at something. I hate it when characters immediately thrive and are obviously the best at something right away because that's not how life is. Especially for a lowborn girl who has only just discovered her powers.
2) Alex. Why can't he be my big brother? I'll trade! My brother is absolutely useless when it comes to being protective. Alex is perfect at it. He lets his sister fight her own battles but when it comes to the point where it is being taken too far, he steps in.
Brothers, please learn how to do this. Your sisters are strong and can do whatever they want but every once in a while, it is nice for you to show you care by standing up for them.
3) The school. Let's put this in perspective, shall we? This is a single school for all the kids in the country. Anybody can come and try if they have magic and want to attempt it. Only 122 show up. Out of the entire country. And not everybody succeeds. This isn't a school where everybody gets a diploma, a job, a trophy and a puppy at the end of the year. If you aren't strong enough, you don't cut it.
4) The teachers. No sugar coating. No bullshit. You either got it or you don't and they aren't going to pull their punches at all.
5) It's not just a romance. Sure, there is some young love going on but that's not what the goal of this book is at all. There's character growth and development of skills. They learn things about themselves and hold themselves accountable for a grueling work schedule. They work hard and don't necessarily get rewarded for it. That's how real life is and this book works well with that.
I wish the world building had been a bit...more so. I missed the aspect of knowing what was going on in the outside world. I wanted to know more about the royal family and the politics of the country. I wanted a map and a sense of a full world in this book.
But other than that, I adored this book. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!