Author: Jesse Teller
Publication Date: April 15, 2019
Format: e-book (read on Kindle)
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
I was sent a copy of this book for review by the author’s spouse.
“The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?
Helena seeks a love as bold as she, yet finds the men of her village lacking.
Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.
Torn apart by abuse and grief, Ellen is a brilliant woman who must focus her intellect on finding reasons to persevere.
Rachel, a brash girl of noble heritage, dares all men to challenge her and longs for one who will.
In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.”
Legends of The Exiles tells the stories of four legendary women of the Ragoth, a seemingly barbarian mountain people in the decades leading up to “The Escape.” They are stories of love, life, strength, loss, and suffering, where the characters struggle to fight back against the fate of tradition, choose their own paths, and forge their own destinies.
I’ve been sitting here a while trying to decide how I want to tackle this review. A book that is four stories woven together could be approached in a number of ways. It isn’t just a collection of short-stories (or novellas) and it isn’t a single story with a single story arc. At first I was going to dish on what I liked and didn’t like but sometimes they could go together. So instead I think I’m going to just talk about the things that really popped out to me.
Teller attempted something interesting with Legends of The Exiles by writing four interconnected stories, each unique, but each interwoven with the other. I know Legends isn’t the first book like this to come along, but it IS the first book like this I’ve read. There are perils and pitfalls to this kind of a structure. Will you keep the reader’s attention? Will you mess up the interconnected aspects of the stories? Is each story strong enough to stand with the others? I could go on.
What I really enjoyed about Legends of The Exiles is the way Teller succeeded in weaving them all together. Each story focuses on one woman, Helena, Jocelyn, Ellen, and Rachel who is struggling against the walls and barriers society and culture have put in their way. And while each story is different, with its own agenda, its own plot, its own protagonist and character arc, each is also integrated with the other. Characters from one story appear in the others and at times we even get to see a particular scene through the eyes and perspective of multiple characters.
The Individual Stories (Characters)
One peril with the format is you run the risk of some stories being stronger or weaker than others. For me this was true of LoTE. Helen’s story “Dreaded Desires”, the first of the book, was the weakest for me. I just really didn’t like her. She’s selfish and flippant and I’m not sure I was meant to like her. I really fought to find qualities in her character I liked apart maybe from her desire to not be forced down a particular path in life and her will to fight for love and future. As the lead story of the book Helen made me wonder if I’d like the rest of it.
Fortunately I DID like the other character’s stories. Jocelyn’s story was perhaps the most fantastical. In a book that is fairly low fantasy in terms of things like magic and the supernatural this one stood out. In “The Princess Prophet” we get much more in the way of otherworldly and supernatural elements.
Rachel’s story “Daughter of Beasts” is the one that fits most people’s expectations of a warrior woman. Rachel is…well a bad ass. She’s fierce and someone most men couldn’t beat in combat even as a young girl. She stands out as daring all comers and hoping there’s at least one man who can live up to the challenge.
My favorite of the four by far is Ellen. In “Dead Girl” we get a heartbreaking and mournful tale of pain, suffering, and abuse, and a woman who struggles through the grief just to survive. Ellen is in my opinion the strongest of all four characters and her story was definitely the most powerful and thought provoking. There is a trigger warning with this story however as it deals with sexual abuse and rape. I know there is a lot of discussion about including rape in fiction these days and Teller addresses why he chose to do so in a post on Writing About Difficult Topics for Fantasy Book Critic.
One of the strongest themes running through the entire book is that of female strength. In recent years there’s been an increase in the number of strong female characters appearing in fantasy. This trend is evident in LoTE with each story focusing on one woman. What is a little different here is that Rachel is the only character to exhibit a warriors strength, a woman who can stand toe to toe with nearly any man; a martial strength. With the others Teller showcases strong female characters in different ways. There’s Helen whose fierce desire pits her against the traditions of her tribe and who sets out alone in a dangerous wold to take what she believes is hers or die trying; a strength of will. There’s Jocelyn who fights her destiny, giving up life and love for the betterment of her people; a strength through sacrifice. And there’s Ellen who suffers horrific abuse and loss, forging the pain into something more than anyone could have imagined; a strength of endurance and even rebirth. Each of the four characters illustrates ways that women are strong in fantasy and in life that doesn’t have to fit a preconceived fantasy mold.
Love is another strong theme of the book. In each story it figures prominently. Love for a partner is found in each. At times it is uncertain, at times unrequited, and at times a danger to everyone not just the protagonist. There’s also love of friends, and family, and tribe. In every case love is that thing binding people together, be it partners in marriage, bonds of friendship, or between tribal ties. And in every case it is also that thing that can split people apart. It is a driving force of the book and for all the characters within, great or small.
I’ve already alluded to it above but it deserves mentioning again. The tension between choice and fate is a strong one in the book. Like everything else it works differently in each story but it is there. All of the characters are at some point and in some way portrayed as being bound by fate or destiny. That fate may be what culture and society has pre-selected for them, what life circumstances have selected for them, or what the gods have selected for them. Either way, Helen, Jocelyn, Ellen, and Rachel each find themselves fighting back. Theirs are stories of deciding not to accept what has been dealt out to them and instead plunging ahead and forging their own path with all the trials and travails that entails.
It’s evident that Teller has put a lot of work into world building. The various tribes and their similarities and differences are almost painstakingly depicted. But the world building isn’t done on a grand scale in LoTE. While the reader is aware of a broader world, what Teller presents here is detail at the micro level. One small segment of the world is on display, the tribes of the mountain and their city of exile. What comes bubbling up through the pages of this book is the story of one people group, at one general moment in time, seen through four lenses. The reader becomes immersed in this people, at this time in history, through these women, with the larger story on the cusp of some great upheaval about to occur.
This is the first book of Teller’s that I’ve read so I have no idea what his style is like. At first I thought the narrative, character actions and the dialogue was a bit…off. I had a hard time placing it at first. It didn’t always seem to flow naturally to me. I thought maybe I was being too critical but it kept worming its way into my mind as I read. But then I thought maybe it was intentional. At some point I realized it read and flowed a lot like a more ancient story…or more like a legend. You know how when you read ancient Greco-Roman stories, or medieval stories, or biblical ones, the dialogue and narrative just read and flow differently? Or when characters do great extraordinary things (like kill bears as a young child a-la Davy Crocket when he was only three). That’s how this one felt to me. And then it seemed to fit. Especially after I remembered how the book begins, with a narrator after a great defeat urging his people not to throw their lives away cheaply, so he tells them the stories of four women; four legends of their people.
So What Didn’t I Like?
Or maybe a better question, what really kept this from a four star review? Well it fits into two categories…
The Payoff (Minor Spoiler)
Throughout the book there is a constant reference to “The Escape.” Every story and chapter begins with some reference to it. The book opens “36 Years After The Escape” and each novella begins between 31 and 40 years “Before The Escape” with corresponding movements through time leading the reader up to “1 Year Before The Escape.” But at no point do we ever learn what the Escape is, or why it’s important, or even very much about why it occurs. Maybe it isn’t central to the four stories in the book as they are in and of themselves, but it sure seems like an important element tying the whole thing together given the number of references threaded into it. In Jocelyn’s story “The Princess Prophet” we come the closest to finding out what it is, and what is going on, but even then we only know something big is about to happen before the narrative closes and we are left with something of a cliff-hanger. Maybe this is something to be explored in a future book, or in one of the other books already set in this world (though it’s billed as readable even if you haven’t read the other books in this world), but it felt like the payoff was missing at the end, that thing that doesn’t just tie the four stories together, but that also ties it to the introduction and why the narrator is telling the stories in the first place.
Sex Scenes and Sexualization
I will admit now that I have never been a big fan of romance. This isn’t what I’d consider a romance genre book, but it does have elements of romance in it (so maybe it is). Because of this I also admit I may not be the best audience for it. I’ve tried to not hold anything romantic about the narrative against it because A) if I’m not the right audience that isn’t the book’s fault, and B) I’m trying to broaden my horizons.
That being said, LoTE includes two elements I didn’t personally care for though I know others will be fine with. The first are the sex scenes. Each story has at least one sex scene that is almost graphic in nature. I admit that the sex scenes fit the stories, and are even integral to them, I just didn’t like how they were depicted. I don’t read erotica for this reason. Now, these weren’t erotica, but to me they felt close. So again, this isn’t a knock on sex scenes, or me saying they shouldn’t be in fantasy books, or on these particular sex scenes, except to say they aren’t for me and as every review is something of a subjective reflection of the reviewer and their tastes I would be wrong not to mention it.
The other element that didn’t sit well with me was the sexualization of young women, particularly of underage young women…or girls. Here I know I walk a fine line. I’m not saying women or girls can’t be sexual beings, or that in real life young women or girls aren’t sexual beings with sexual wants and desires, or that we can’t talk or write about that subject. I also recognize in this book the characters are not “human” but some other human-like people so what equates to age and maturity is something different. But it was still something I didn’t like. Now, I recognize many other readers will have no problem with this element, and there is nothing as depicted that doesn’t happen to real women and girls in real life, and that it is an element worth exploring in fiction. It just was something that didn’t work for me. Maybe I doth protest too much. I don’t know.
Whew, i know this is already a long review and you’re probably like “FINISH ALREADY!” I just started writing and couldn’t stop apparently.
Overall I enjoyed Legends of The Exiles. It is a bold book taking a bold approach to female characters in fantasy. Teller approaches his subjects with with care and affection but doesn’t coddle them or make their lives easy. They must all go through a crucible of sorts, each being molded into someone new, and each in turn being set apart as an example to future generations of their people not as normal political, or military, or religious leaders, but as simply models of strength and endurance in the face of the hardships and the roadblocks set in their path. Helena, Jocelyn, Ellen, and Rachel show that women in fantasy can be many things, have differing roles, have desires, learn from mistakes, show true strength, and all be integral the “story” without being objects or window dressing for others in the narrative.