Marc Turner’s debut novel in a series titled “The Chronicles of the Exile” (it is not clear who the Exile is as readers have a few to choose from) is rather good High Fantasy. Those readers who have immersed themselves in the genre since the 1980s will sink somewhat pleasurably into a chair and be wrapped in a narrative that is suffused with the taste of earlier, greater authors. There are strong echoes of David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Weis & Hickman, Raymond Feist, Trudi Canavan, Jennifer Fallon, Hugh Cook, Brent Weeks, and Kate Elliot, to name nearly a dozen, – all present and bound together in the action, the language and the painting of this novel. It isn’t plagiarism per se, but the influences are so strong that Turner must be intimately familiar with these Greats of the genre. All of which brought a nostalgic smile to this reviewer’s face.
Given this, it might be hard to write something that isn’t a rehash, but Turner manages it well. The story, given the detailed map at the beginning, is actually a simple tale of convergence in a small part of this fantasy world. Turner takes the well-used theme of ‘fantasy characters on a quest’ and makes it into a five-group race to the threatening Forest of Sighs that houses the ruins of an ancient civilisation where Turner’s own version of King Lear sits madly on his Gormenghast throne, lank hair and all, raining death down with skeletal glee merged with his newfound access to absolute sorcery.
Mayot Mencada is the name of the nefarious mage who seeks to trouble the Gods, to force open a rent to their world and take over as Lord of the Dead (Raistlin Majere, anyone?). He’s doing this with the help of a book – the Book of Lost Souls – an artefact of such power that he might just achieve his mad goal. Trouble is a complete lack of tactical nous means he’s raised an army of an undead race – the Vamillians – and thrown it at everyone with little understanding of strategy. This leads us to the plausible fellowships of our taskforces where ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. What follows is a little like Matthew Reilly’s ‘Contest’ where teams with different skills race to the epicentre of this undead war to try and recover the Book, kill Mayot, and assume some kind of leadership. No one’s really thinking about what comes after. Winning hearts and minds isn’t really an option.
Within the turn of a few pages of the book we find our first team, comprised of Luker Essendar – a Guardian (of what isn’t exactly clear), Merin Grey (commander of 7th Army of Erin Elal), Don Chamery Pelk (mage of the Black Tower), and Jenna Amary (the inevitable female assassin in all high fantasy novels) moaning and back-stabbing their lethally sardonic way across the plains to the Forest of Sighs. Enter from the other side Parolla Morivan – necromancer extraordinaire with serious self-esteem issues, a clearly introverted, highly magical woman who spends most of her time trying to gain access to the Underworld without losing herself to Death Magic. Parolla is counterbalanced by the best character of the book – Romany Elivar, High Priestess of Spider, who enters the fray at her Goddess’ behest in subtle spiritual form, playing everyone like marionettes in deadly game of chess whilst knocking back bottles of epicurean wine. Intelligent, cunning, immensely likeable, her affable irritation and eventual humanity in the face of the maelstrom of uber-fantasy is remarkably levelling.
The penultimate team comprises the Kingly melee of Ebon Calidar – King of Galitia, Mottle – his air-mage who is almost as perfect a creation as Romany with his idiosyncratic, hypnotic hyperbaton speech pattern and the gloriously puffed peacock and dastardly villain, Consel Garat Hallon, leader of the Sartorians (which seem to be a peoples part Spartan, part Roman, all arrogance). Having had the undead assault Ebon’s capital city of Majack they gallop eastwards to save their respective nations whilst indulging in usual kingly political intrigue.
Completing the mix is a fifth ‘team’ sent in by the threatened Lord of the Dead: ‘The Shroud’, effectively comprised of his best lieutenants, around fifteen or so warriors with a set of skills only restrained by the limits of Turner’s imagination.
What follows is nearly 600 pages of magical fights, each one having to be more powerful than the last, achieved by Mayot throwing greater and greater reincarnated warriors up against the best the Lands of the Exile have to offer until they are whittled down to a privileged few who, inevitably, defeat our insane mage through his own hubris. All of which leaves both the reader and living characters replete, gasping for breath, and a little bemused how to top this one. There may be two more novels to come, but it’s hard to see how Turner might improve on this opener – so long as he doesn’t fall into the trap of Brent Weeks, coerced into producing sequels with even louder bangs and great exhortations of sorcery, which eventually end up being a bit ludicrous in a genre that liberally permits such events.
All to say, I kind of loved this. It was a nostalgic trip back to the realm of High Fantasy that would make the authors mentioned earlier proud. It is a remix, not a ‘cover’ per se, of all the brilliant storytelling elements that propelled the likes of Belgarion, Raistlin Majere, Steerpike, Pug, R’shiel Tenragan, to name a few, into the consciousness of those who adore this kind of pure fantasy. It could have gone horribly wrong, but these new characters move with snappy dialogue and even snappier fight scenes at a pace that is undulating with enough variety of characterisation for every reader to pick a favourite. There is little originality when it comes to place: the usual mix of forests, rivers, taverns, temples, seedy alleys, different dimensions, docks and races across hills, mountains, and plains are all in here. There is room for improvement as Turner clearly feels the need to have every scene confrontational in nature; it would be useful to have more character development based on behaviour and relationships rather than always being testosterone-fuelled angry people responding to perceived historical slights, arrogance, taciturn stubbornness, paranoia, or general aggrievedness. There is some attempt at this with the interaction between Ebon and Lamella but it, unfortunately, serves no useful purpose to the relish of the novel which is sorcerous fights. A shame it is a vital development to move the book into a trilogy.
I will look for the sequel, but Turner has left no hook to make this reviewer do so; the novel is complete as it stands. Splendidly so, which means it comes with a stamp of approving recommendation, but I’m not yet left wanting more. Let’s see how next novel goes…