Prologue: If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”
The review (two hours earlier):
Frey, by Melissa Wright, is the first installment of a rather long series. Often writers of series will offer the first installment for free to get readers hooked. I am a cheap bastard, and I do enjoy a high fantasy. I decided to give this one a go.
Right off the bat, a small warning sign. There is a prologue, but the action of the prologue actually happens somewhere around chapter four. So… not so much a prologue as a tease (also a time-honored literary tradition).
Mark Twain (I think it was) said (something like) “Start the story as late as possible.” It’s something I consistently fail to do. My Kansas Bunch Colleagues accuse me of “walking to the story,” meaning I have a bunch of stuff happen and then the story actually begins. Having a “prologue” that is actually something that happens not that far into the story strikes me as a way to create an alternate entry point into the narrative, as if the author is aware that the first few pages aren’t compelling enough on their own.
I was happy to discover, then, that the first few pages actually were compelling enough to stand on their own. Perhaps a little more work was needed to make them really grab, but there was plenty enough happening that the artificial tension-upper prologue was not necessary.
Frey is just your typical elf, except she can’t do magic, which makes her not typical at all. She walks around with a big L on her head and she has a special tutor but she’s pretty much hopeless.
Except it turns out that the day before we start reading she got pissed off at some elf-bitch who was mocking her and kinda-maybe did some fully-justified hurtful magic.
When I read that part, I was reassured that there would be no walking to the story. Significant shit started going down even before we join Frey in her world.
In fact, I kind of wish the narrative had started one day sooner. I wish I was there for the teasing, for the avoidance, for the pursuit, and for that moment of anger when Frey turns on her tormentor and everything changes, even if we didn’t know it at the time. It could have been a powerful scene. And anger is one of Frey’s core strengths; we may as well start learning that.
A Mysterious Stranger arrives in town, and Frey is fascinated by him. We’ve read these stories before, and we know what that means. Frey has not read those same novels and will require more convincing. Mysterious Stranger’s name is Chevelle. That took me back for a moment, as that is a name I used jokingly in The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. It turns out this name will be the second-least silly name to follow in this entire book.
I think the author was having fun with the names, kind of a nudge-nudge game with her readers, but it was distracting.
So there is traveling, and the assembly of the party, including Steed (see what I mean?) and Ruby, who are themselves interesting, multi-dimensional, and well-rendered.
But here’s the thing that annoys me no end. ALL those people know things about Frey, about her muddled past. (Of course she has a muddled past.) But no one tells Frey anything. Frey, for her part, seems to be working extra-hard to be clueless about the intentions of the others. Information withholding and deliberate obtuseness — two cornerstones holding up a plot that would shrivel and die if you shone a light on it. That’s two stars off for lazy plotting.
One of the two stars I deducted for this sin shall be restored because one of the entourage found a way to circumvent the will of the others, adding complexity to the group dynamic. Then a star removed again for the author not exploiting the schism in the group.
What drives me crazy is that all this obfuscation just wasn’t necessary. And so many cool moments were lost because of it. Consider this modest modification:
“You need to learn to use weapons. Why don’t you give this sword a try?”
Frey takes the sword. It’s not as heavy as she expects. There are runes etched in the metal. “It’s beautiful,” Frey says.
“It used to be yours.”
BAM! That’s a moment. But that moment can never happen because the author is hiding things from the protagonist that even WE know, despite the first-person narrative.
There’s another part where Frey does something… monumental with that same sword. Not monumental in the sense of changing the course of history, but something that should have been personally monumental. Something that doesn’t fit with the image she’s built of herself, yet no identity crisis follows. What a great opportunity to start a personal struggle that could carry through the whole series.
So many annoyances, but. I got to the end pretty quickly, turning my electric pages. There must be a reason for that.
The prose itself is of the “do your job and don’t get in the way” school, not prone to strutting and preening for its own virtue. I can appreciate that. Descriptions and setting are good enough I’d like to know more.
But mostly it’s the ideas in this story that kept me going. Some are the same old tropes I love so dearly, like the rise of the lost and forgotten child. There’s a “let’s turn the myth upside-down” conceit that’s fun. There’s a whiff of elf-eugenics, thrown for a loop by an outside influence. But above all that there is a spirit of rebellion. Fantasy for so long was about defeating the evil, disruptive elements. I like stories where the protagonist herself is a disruptive element. By the end of her story, things are going to be different.
Mechanically, I have issues, but the story has heart and it has behind it an intelligence (that the characters don’t always share).
If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”
Whether you read the second volume is up to you. I probably won’t. But I’m tempted. But I probably won’t.