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Book Review: Royal Exile by Fiona McIntosh

* Genre: Epic/High Fantasy
* Mass Market Paperback: 480 pages
* Publisher: Eos
* Publish Date: December 30, 2008
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 0061582689
* ISBN-13: 978-0061582684
* Author Website

In Royal Exile, Fiona McIntosh returns to the same world of the Percheron Saga. Though the concept is exactly what makes for good epic fantasy, the writer’s execution does not bear it out. Wooden dialogue, information dumps, and characters indistinguishable from each other make this novel a sad caricature of its potential.

In the novel, a tribal barbarian warlord by the name of Loethar is rapidly conquering the Set, a federation of kingdoms with a high medieval culture. The King of Penraven, most powerful of the Set, quickly realizes that he will soon be the last to fall, as each kingdom believed itself capable of stopping Loethar, but with no success. This provides the set-up for the rest of the story, and within a few chapters of its beginning, Loethar has conquered the Set.

But the King of Penraven was canny. He provided for his three children, a daughter who was born on the very day of the invasion is hidden away. The young crown prince and a companion hide away in the walls of the castle, and the adopted simpleton is left to the clutches of Loethar.

The first story of this trilogy follows the path of the young crown prince Leo and Gavriel de Vis, both in their teens, who must first hide from Loethar, and then find a way to escape from the castle and begin raising a rebellion.

McIntosh has written a novel that does a lot of telling, but not very much showing. The characters seem to stand stiffly while engaging in discourse, and their actions are known only through declarations of intent. A character will say “I am going to do such and such” and then proceed to do it. Even when it does not come out in dialogue, it seems that internal monologues of the characters announce each action before it occurs, rendering this novel into a prescriptive rather than descriptive tale.

This also come through in the common information dumps, where characters will stop in the middle of an action or normal dialogue to explain some part of the history of the Set. While this is not necessarily a bad thing in fiction, when it occurs as often as McIntosh has done, it begins to become a trial. (I would quote an example here, but the copy I read was an advance reader copy, and therefore there is a small possibility that the text now differs from the published version, which I do not have access to yet.)

Finally, the most grievous error of the novel is the fact that McIntosh’s characters are indistinguishable from each other. Her villain dos very evil and cruel things, but then will do things that are utterly kind. Her heroes are good and right, but are often petulant even cruel. There is a case for applauding the attempt to show that peoples’ morality is not all shades of black and white, but rather a more subtle grey. That is, if it is done well. But in Royal Exile it is not done well, and the end result is not more humanized villains or a less noble hero, but simply flat characters who seem to be so much like one another that no interest or emotional connection can be built in or for them..

This is why, when the love interest of one of the characters is killed in front of the eyes of that character, the reader will feel nothing. There is no level of excitement, no sense of danger. It is a flat recitation of what is happening, and that characters emotions, but we the reader do not feel that we have any connection to the events being related. It is like reading a work of analytical history, not the popularized works, but the stuff that reminds you of the textbooks of your youth. At times during my reading, I would have preferred to read a textbook.

If you spin this on its head, you could say that this shows that McIntosh is willing to do that rare thing, that is, kill off main characters. That is certainly a good thing, and more of it needs to be done in epic fantasy, but if the writer fails to build any sort of tension or rising action to the event, as is the case here, then the shock value of an important character dying is entirely lost. In other words, I could applaud McIntosh’s willingness to kill characters if I had felt any connection to the characters in the first place, or even if there had been some sort of build-up to the death, rather than less-than-vague hints.

I do not recommend Royal Exile. It is dry and dull, full of flat characters, lackluster narration full of info dumps, dialogue with no close relationship to reality, and no rising action of plot. There are much better epic fantasies available and I recommend you try one of them instead.