(NOTE: This review has been edited - I've marked the major edit, and I've fixed a couple of "idiot errors")
Mr. Manning has a very solid instinct about how to tell a story. Good narrative drive to draw the reader forward. I'm very pleased that the plot is human sized - it isn't about the destruction of the universe, fated destiny etc. It is about a morally weak individual and those who oppose him. I find that human scale to be somewhat rare in fantasy literature. I also like the way that Manning unveils the story; the details he lays out early and those which he saves for later.
The novel has some weak spots; (EDIT: Originally I said I wouldn't pay full price for this. The next three books I purchased cost more than this book and weren't as good. I probably still wouldn't pay hardback prices for Mageborn, but I would probably pay more for this book than I did.)
* The romance and sex plots depict a pretty contemptible image of manhood and masculinity. I understand that sometimes men are bad. But I shouldn't walk away from a novel embarrassed to be a man. The villain is a rapist. Penelope's seduction technique is effectively rape. There are counterexamples. Count DiCameron and his wife or Duke Lancaster and his wife. They're in the background and the foreground characters made me feel uncomfortable. Worst of all, the sex, rape and romance didn't contribute to the story. It diminished the entertainment value. I may be unduly harsh; I just know that the negative impressions of gender and sexuality had a stronger impression on me than the good impressions.
* The evil character is a one dimensional proxy for external forces of evil; quite sad, because he had serious potential to be a sympathetic villain. If he were given even a paragraph of real motivation, or demonstrated to occasionally make moral choices this book would have been immeasurably better.
* The good characters were, by and large, equally two dimensional. They act because they are good. You can predict their actions in any circumstance. One in particular (Lady Hightower) was so full of goodness and virtue that I wanted to join with the evil characters and fling her from the battlements. If the world contains people who are that virtuous, that wise, who are so consistently able to say and do the right things in every situation, then by comparison I'm much closer to the evil folks in the world. She had serious potential to be my favorite character. Her first appearance reminded me of an aunt in a Georgette Heyer novel. By the middle of the book she had descended to the level of Mary Jane Slushpile and I wanted to skip any scene in which she occurred. Virtue isn't virtuous if it is free, and Lady Hightower simply doesn't pay a price for virtue.
I could go on - there are many character who have the potential to rise above themselves, but none of them did. None of them ever really make a moral choice (I could argue that perhaps Penelope did, but by the time she made that choice, I'd ceased to have any sympathy for her, and I need to feel some sympathy in order to care about a character's moral choices). I think that potential is one of the things that kept me reading the book.
One other flaw that deserves mention. The book contains some writing from Marcus the Heretic, who points out the relative frequency of Mages, Seers, Stoics and Channellers. If I recall two of those are listed as occurring not more than one in several thousand. It staggers the imagination and the suspension of disbelief that all of those types are present in the novel, and all are aligned on the side of goodness.
The strongest characters in the book are those on the periphery; my favorite is Duke Lancaster. He is still too virtuous to be believable, but there are some reasons why he behaves the way he does. He's also the only character who leaves me with the impression that he is aware of the price of virtue.
The setting is quite well done. I like the magic system, and I like the way it is I kept waiting for Manning to trip up and make an error in the setting. The only weak points in the setting (the disappointingly modern lack of any class distinction or conflict) were mostly covered over by something that isn't obvious to the reader at the beginning of the book. I think that Manning does a good job of making the setting important to the plot. I cared about the conflict between good and evil because of the effect it would have on the world.
Given all the criticism I cite above, I find it rather surprising that I'm eager for a sequel. Manning has some of the hard stuff down. I hope Manning works in a writing group and gets some solid critique. Or reads writing advice from Jim Butcher or Orson Scott Card - both of whom know how to demonstrate that the protagonist's choices have consequences.