(Gollancz, $14.95, 442 pages, paperback; reissue of 1998 novel.)
OK, here's the quick lowdown. Robert
Earl of Dunlorn, comes home after three years of self-imposed exile.
Through chance (or is it?) he connects with Jenn, a young noblewoman
who was abducted as a child and raised in a tavern. They are both sorcerers,
even though everybody thinks all the sorcerers are dead; this is a difficulty
for them. Their other major difficulty is that the country is under
the thumb of a tyrannical nutcase, Selar, whom Robert swore never to
rise against. This is only Book One of a trilogy, so we pretty much
just get the introduction going, but it's strong enough to hold.
Now, if this were it, if this were the story and we watched these two
characters learn to battle the evils around them, conquer the conflicts
within them, and (naturally) fall in love with each other, Exile's
Return would have been a great novel. As it stands, though, it is
a good story and a fun read but is filled with many of the problems
that plague other high-fantasy novels.
For starters, the story focuses on too many characters. In the hands
of another author -- George R.R. Martin, for example -- this can work
wonders. He takes the time to give a full plotline to each character
he explores. It's one of the reasons every book in The Song of Fire
and Ice is a gazillion pages long. Jacoby, however, doesn't seem
too interested in the secondary characters, even though she spends a
lot of time with them. Do I really need to experience what the child
Queen is thinking and doing? Must I sit through the boringly twisted
relationship between the two evil sorcerers? Could not the important
information in these scenes be learned as our main characters learn
it? Whenever I was reading about Robert and Jenn, I was enthralled.
When I was with the other characters, I wanted to get to the next Robert
and Jenn chapter.
Thankfully, Jacoby steers clear of elves, dwarfs, dragons, or any other
such stuff. Nothing wrong with those things, but too often such elements
seem forced and drag fantasy stories into the realm of the over-predictable.
Jacoby, instead, gives us two compelling characters with human responses
to their dilemmas.
The magic in this book is both well thought-out and believably told
-- another plus. But then there is The Key -- an object of great power
that can speak into the minds of sorcerers. It has Prophesied (or so
it seems), and its Motives are Questionable.
I could go on, but you get the idea. It's bothersome. This book could
have been great had it steered clear of a few more high-fantasy tropes.
Jacoby's writing is smooth and thrilling. She packs a lot of action
in and the story moves at a crisp pace. I want this book to be on par
with the other great fantasies. Alas, it is just a good read.
And after all my kvetching, I am stuck with that end result. I still
want to read the next two books. I want to experience the complete story
regardless of its shortcomings. I want to know what happens to Robert
and Jenn. Perhaps that's the most important comment of all.
Review by Stuart Jaffe.