The Exile by C.T. Adams Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
C.T. Adams is one-half of prolific urban-fantasy duo C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who have also written in tandem as Cat Adams. The Exile is, apparently, C.T. Adams’ first solo novel, and an oddball of a novel it is: it opens looking like a fairly straight variant of urban fantasy, and gradually takes on more of the shape of a portal fantasy. The world on the other side of the portal is called “Faerie,” and — let’s be honest — it’s a spot on the bland and generic side.
Brianna Hai is a moderately successful shopowner in a North American city. She sells curios, magical and otherwise, with the assistance of her employee and friend David. She’s also the daughter of King Leu of Faerie and his late human lover. Brianna’s mother was exiled from Faerie for sealing the veil between the human and fae worlds so that the natives of Faerie can only cross with the help of a human. Brianna has no intentions of returning to her father’s court, where most of her siblings and half the court nobility would be happy to see her dead. But unbeknownst to her, there are forces mobilising in Faerie and the human world against her father, and King Leu has received a prophecy concerning his impending death. When enemies from Faerie raid Brianna’s apartment, she — accompanied by her friend and protector Pug, a gargoyle; David; and David’s cop brother Nick, who has only just learned of the existence of magic — pursues them back to her father’s realm, and ends up right in the middle of a court full of traitors and people who see her human friends as potential toys.
And in conclusion, all hell breaks loose and Faerie goes to war. The Exile is, it seems, only the first novel of a series.
If you don’t mind a certain amount of narrative carelessness, a multiplicity of point-of-view characters to a degree more usually seen in 700-page epic fantasies than in 320-page not-quite-urban-fantasies, and a jarring spot of racism/narrative validation of police violence, The Exile is an undemandingly readable piece of fiction. But should we settle for “undemandingly readable”? I cannot muster more enthusiasm: while the characterisation does succeed in reaching beyond mere bland types, the ways in which the narrative fails to take advantage of its potential undermines my enjoyment to no small extent. The reader has no sense of the conflict and the stakes for which the factions in Faerie are competing until too late — and how closely this conflict will affect Brianna likewise remains opaque until very late. And how this Faerie-driven conflict fits in with the potential threats to Brianna in the human world is hinted at, but never made clear. Nick comes into contact with her because his bosses suspect her of being the mastermind of some unspecified criminal enterprise, but this plot thread is dropped, only to be dragged back up again at the close of play, when Brianna’s position has undergone sufficient change of state that one imagines criminal charges will be the least of her worries.
As for Nick himself… well, what is the point of Nick? He’s one of the (many) point-of-view characters, and seems to be being set up as a romantic interest for Brianna. He’s the good cop who kills a black fourteen-year-old in a justified shooting,* and Exposition Man who needs all of Faerie explained to him. Nick is a combination of boring and annoying.
The more I think about The Exile, it strikes me, the less I like it. It can’t quite make up its mind what kind of book it wants to be — and for all its numerous point of view characters, it gives no space at all to the antagonists who become vitally important in the final 80 pages. The reader never sees who they really are or what they really want, and in consequence they’re a blank space filled up with cliché evil. They have no motivations beyond evil and ambition — none, at least, that the reader is permitted to see.
That’s a pity, because I wanted to be able to recommend this book. But I can’t.
*In a gratuitous section of the novel — what does that even add to the narrative except racism and police violence?
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