Forward the Mage is neither a prequel nor sequel to The Philosophical Strangler. Instead, this book is chronologically somewhere in the middle of the events of The Philosophical Strangler. Our main protagonists are the wizard Zulkeh, his long suffering apprentice Shelyid, and the artist and swordsman Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini. We also have revolutionaries, madmen who run their own asylum and a region of absolute anarchy that has regularly scheduled civil wars.
The book opens with Benvenuti arriving in Goimr just in time to get arrested by Goimr’s secret police. The secret police apprehended him because they decided he was a spy in league with the “evil wizard” Zulkeh. Benvenuti is soon able to confirm his innocence and ends up associating with a revolutionary named Gwendolyn. Though Benvenuti is from Ozar and a dirty rotten imperialist (technically speaking,) romantic sparks fly between him and Gwendolyn as they travel together.
Meanwhile, the wizard Zulkeh is on the run after being falsely accused of driving the king insane. Zulkeh had initially been hired to interpret the king’s dream, but the symbolism of the dream turned out to be a premonition of the end of civilization. Greatly alarmed, Zulkeh headed off to continue doing research into this dire prediction. When he realizes that he can’t figure out the particulars of his premonition, he decides that the reason is because he has secret enemies who are secretly keeping him from discovering anything. (Zulkeh is actually a complete buffoon and the reason he can’t find anything out is because he is stupid.)
I did not like this book as much as I liked The Philosophical Strangler. It was much more “clunky” than the previous book and I did not like the narrative elements of Zulkeh’s parts in the story (or more accurately, poor Shelyid’s parts). Zulkeh’s arc is actually about Shelyid slowly becoming more confident and learning to stand up for himself. I would have liked the arc a lot more if it had involved Shelyid getting away from his abuser. (Zulkeh is in addition to being a complete buffoon is also a bullying abusive bastard who has been abusing Shelyid for his entire life.) Despite my general irritation with Zulkeh, this book is entertaining with engaging characters.