Arcanum is a vast, sweeping fantasy novel with a brilliant premise. It reads, in part, like alternative history — it’s set in recognizable places in Europe, in the early medieval period — but in this version of history, the barbarians overthrew Rome because they had magic on their side. For hundreds of years, magic has made the principality of Carinthia function smoothly, its princes little more than ceremonial figureheads while a powerful cabal of magicians keeps would-be enemies at bay.
Then, suddenly, the magic stops working. This, to me, was the most interesting and chilling part of the novel, and it’s an obvious but not heavy-handed parallel to the possibility our own society faces of running out of fossil fuels: what happens when the magical power that everyone relies upon to run almost everything stops working? And what if there’s a way to bring it back, but the cost is horrifyingly high?
It’s intriguing to watch this scenario unfold and see how the many viewpoint characters react to the new challenges. These characters include the orphaned young prince of Carinthia, a hardworking librarian who realizes that books might hold the secrets to rebuilding a non-magical society, and a young Jewish woman who finds herself thrust, Esther-like, into a position of unexpected power (Arcanum appears to explore a stratum of history where Jews remain an oppressed minority, as they did within the Roman Empire, but Christianity never seems to have happened at all).
The story continued beyond the point at which I expected it would have been a good place to end, but it continued to hold my attention, and it was a good read throughout. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes epic fantasy.