Tribute by Ellen Renner review – spellbinding YA fantasy

In a richly imagined world ruled by a magical elite, teenage heroine Zara searches for a hidden truth that will blow her privileged society apart

Ellen Renner

Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.

Tribute is set in a city divided between those who can use magic and those who can’t. Its society is built on a classic us-and-them division, with all the dehumanisation that accompanies such thinking. Mages regard non-magical people as cattle; they in turn see mages as demons. Our viewpoint character is Zara, teenage daughter of the Archmage, who has to go alone into the non-magical world she’s been raised to despise. She discovers that “it is the hardest thing to live among those who think you inhuman. It is beyond loneliness.”

Zara survives, adapts and ultimately transcends these divisions, finding her way to a hidden truth that blows her society’s structure apart. This is not easy for her. It’s no small matter to overcome deeply held prejudices, or find new ways of being that make space for the other – but it is possible. She does it through empathy, by feeling the common humanity of the other and understanding that what unites is greater than what divides. As such, Tribute isn’t an allegory of any given situation, but rather a story that goes to the heart of all such situations. It’s not hard to see why Amnesty International has endorsed this book.

If Renner’s world is absorbing, her magic is outstanding. It’s elemental in nature, with a wonderfully tactile feel. Zara opens locks, for example, by using her consciousness to make metal rust, or by encouraging wood fibres to drift apart. She can gather all the moisture in the atmosphere to melt stone into slurry; or she can concentrate air into almost solid columns, allowing her to fly. The sheer physicality of her magic makes it spellbindingly believable.

The most powerful magic is the projection of consciousness into other beings. This is generally used to master animals, but it can also control people. Zara’s father has used it on her in the past, and her memory of that traumatic violation is the hard, bitter core of the narrative, described with all the horror of a physical violation.

Zara, however, is no victim. Nor is she the kind of feisty action heroine now common in young adult fiction. She is complex: intelligent but reckless, empathic yet gauche. These are compelling characteristics in a heroine, even if they make her repeated misunderstanding of certain plot machinations a little hard to accept. But plot mechanics are not the reason to read this book; it’s the deeper elements that shine.

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