So this review took a while to get out. Not the book’s fault, it found me at a bad time mentally again, but I’ve been neglecting the blog again. Which is a shame, because I’d been looking forward to Legends of the Exiles. A collection of loosely connected novellas about strong female characters in a neat barbarian low-fantasy setting was definitely sparking my interest.
Legends of the Exiles collects the stories of four proud exile women, each legendary in their own right within their community. The reader first follows Helena, determined to find a love as bold as she is, only for her boldness to drive away the one person she wants. Second is Jocelyn, a wolf princess with a grim destiny and the strange powers needed to make it come to pass. Third is Ellen, abandoned by her community for the misdeeds of an abuser who learns to piece her life back together. And last is Rachel, a near-feral princess who is looking for someone who she can truly call an equal, both in battle and in bed.
I wanted to like Legends of the Exiles a lot more than I did. I do have a few issues that I’ll discuss below, but I feel that I should start with the stuff that I did like. I’m still happy that I finished this because there are points throughout the novellas that are incredibly powerful and evocative, particularly in Ellen’s novella “Dead Girl”, which is by far the most interesting and accomplished of the quartet. Those moments were affecting enough that I wanted to finish reading in the hopes of finding more of those moments.
Unfortunately, now we come to the things that didn’t work for me about Legends of the Exiles, which can be narrowed to three overarching issues that affect each novella to varying extents. The first is that I’m pretty sure that I’ve dived into a load of side stories for a previously established series, because it is frustratingly sparse on certain worldbuilding details that I imagine would need no explanation for those already familiar with the wider setting. For example, there’s a framing narrative introduced at the beginning that is presumably intended to tie it all together. The problem with this framing narrative is that it’s not revisited at the end of the book, so the reader finds out absolutely nothing about who the narrator was supposed to be or what headstrong warrior-type they were apparently narrating these stories to. Another thing that strongly indicates that it ties into a series is that each skip in time is headed with “X Years Before the Escape”, which is all very well but kind of difficult to figure out the timeline of these stories on the fly, unless they directly retell scenes from earlier novellas, and doesn’t really have much impact because I have no idea what the hell the “Escape” is. The book doesn’t have much interest in explaining its significance, which is a shame because it gets to be kind of alienating. I remember hearing that one of Stan Lee’s sayings was “Every comic book is someone’s first”, and I feel that this is a good saying to apply to books in general, despite the difference in consumption. If you’re writing something new in a series, I believe that it should be as accessible to newcomers as is possible to do without repeating a previous book wholesale. Legends of the Exiles does not do that for me.
My second issue with it is that despite the novellas appearing to focus on different issues, they kind of all boil down to “The main female character is happy when she gets to be with her man”. The only one of the four women followed through the book to not get married to her true love ends up alienating him and dying horribly. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge a good romance novel, it is the highest selling fiction genre so it must be doing something right. My issue is that by trying to sell itself as something other than romance, it’s kind of shooting itself in the foot. It does also kind of undermine the whole “strong female character” thing if their character arcs revolve almost solely around their relationships with their lovers/husbands, fathers and sons. While the romance itself doesn’t bother me, I can see it getting to the wrong audience based on its provided synopsis.
The third issue is one that kind of rubbed me the wrong way even when it was handled well, and that’s the sexualised view of girls way under the age of consent. All four of the women that the book focuses on start their stories at very young ages, and their novella will each span a minimum of a decade. The problem with this is that once they hit the 12/13 mark, there’s some level of sexuality introduced into their interactions with men and boys and I am really not comfortable with that. If it were starting around the 15/16 age I could probably understand that a bit more because that’s a typical sort of age for your attractiveness to start mattering to a teenager, even if I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable reading about them having sex. There is nothing sexy about a 12-year old girl, and to have it come up consistently is raising my hackles more than a little. There’s only one incident of it going further than heated looks, and it is treated like the trauma that it is, but the fact that this comes up outside the deliberate paedophilia plot-line leaves a really bad taste in the mouth.
While there is some good writing that is evocative and moving in places, Legends of the Exiles kind of shoots itself in the foot for me. Primarily this is due to some uncomfortably sexualised pre-teens, but the fact that it is obtuse to readers new to the previously-established world doesn’t help either. 3/5
Next review: The Violent Fae by Phil Williams