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Exile's Return

by Kate Jacoby

(Gollancz, $14.95, 442 pages, paperback; reissue of 1998 novel.)

OK, here's the quick lowdown. Robert cover scanDouglas, 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.

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