An Old-Fashioned Tale
They don’t often write them like this anymore. Maybe they should.
Daughter of Exile, by Isabel Glass, is the story of Angarred Hashan, only daughter of Lord Challo. Lord Challo is an exile from the intrigues of the royal court, living in a decaying mansion. When he dies, Angarred finds herself impoverished and travels to the capital looking for answers to the puzzles of her father’s life and death. She soon becomes enmeshed in those aforementioned intrigues, enlisting the help of a handsome wizard burdened by a secret sorrow. Together they encounter heroes and villains engaged in treachery, diplomacy, and using various magics for selfless good and self-serving ill. Together with Gedren, honest serving woman, and Jerret, a truly noble noble, they foil a vile conspiracy. Success for some is won at the price of grief for others, lightened here and there with unexpected joy.
From the first few pages, this struck me as an irresistibly old-fashioned book. The writing style is predominately narrative rather than driven by dialogue, in the sense that we are being told a story rather than being present to witness it for ourselves. In fact this book would lend itself to being read aloud, something that’s rarer than you might think these days. This shows just how well Glass uses narrative and summary. All too often writers attempting this style simple trundle along, telling us this happened and then that happened, and then he said this, and she said that. It’s the literary equivalent to driving along at a steady 30 mph, no swerves or bumps in the road, unremarkable scenery flowing past the windows. By contrast, this tale speeds along from the outset, with endless twists and nicely original turns to compensate for the occasional predictable step or too-convenient coincidence. Here narrative summary means we’re told what we need to know in short, pithy scenes vivid with vibrant description and intelligent use of telling detail. No time is wasted on irrelevance as the story moves swiftly along.
Many of the plot elements and settings are straight out of the traditional-fantasy handbook. We have backwoods nobles, a quasi-medieval capital city with a vast palace riddled with secret passages and a feudal court of treacherous lords and vapid ladies. There’s a faintly oriental enemy, a mysterious college of mages hidden in a magical forest and even giants lurking. There’s a stolen artifact that offers answers, power and ultimately a resolution. There are no intricate explanations as to how all this came to be or how everything relates to each other. That’s not what this book is about. What matters is painting a satisfactory backdrop for the story. Each snippet of information we get about people and places and plans answers our questions as well as raising new ones, not sufficiently to distract but skillfully intriguing and prompting that all-important turn of the page.
As those pages turn, we see events unfold from new points of view as successive characters are introduced with deceptively well-crafted logic. Each one keeps the story moving and prompts ever-renewed curiosity. There’s no danger of the narrative thread unraveling though, as Angarred’s tale remains central. Like all of the characters, she’s portrayed with essential simplicity. Bright, though naïve, she’s courageous and determined in the best tradition of redheaded heroines. The wizard Mathewar cherishes a bereavement like so many solitary heroes while Gedren is a resolutely solid peasant, her son Labren a true-hearted foot-soldier. As with the scene setting, the characterization may be simple but it is certainly sufficient and the villains have believable, straightforward motives for their villainy. Crucially, while Glass has taken much from traditional fantasy, she’s deftly thought her way around more dated aspects like the unthinking misogyny that can make such books unpalatable these days. There are other more ‘modern’ touches; Mathewar dulls the pain of his loss with an addictive drug and the various implications of that are shrewdly handled. Above all, there’s an emotional truth to all these characters and their interactions.
I found this book a satisfying read for a cold and rainy January Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre or offer an overwhelming immersive experience but there’s no suggestion it claims to. It reminded me of all the simple virtues of traditional heroic tales that drew me to fantasy in the first place. Writing that kind of book these days, accentuating the positive and skirting the negatives, without falling into all the pitfalls of pastiche or predictability is harder than you might think. There’s verve and charm and astuteness in the writing that leaves me interested to see what Isabel Glass will do next as she thinks her way around the central themes of fantasy fiction.
[Note: “Isabel Glass” is a pen name of Lisa Goldstein]
This review originally appeared in Emerald City.