First-time author James Clemens, a veterinarian by trade, makes his
fantasy debut with the first book of the epic "The Banned and the
Banished," entitled Wit'ch Fire. Several aspects of the novel
give Clemens away as a novice. There's a rampant overuse of apostrophes;
the main character is surrounded and aided by a motley crew of multispecies
and multiracial outcasts; the protagonist comes into her heritage of
magic with the onset of her menses. Yet a number of details and storyline
points balance that which is overeager and overdone, including the
ancient-mariner life of one important character and
the origins of the
requisite overpowering evil that awakens from its slumber and must be
defeated to protect the very existence of the world, as well as the
hint of the story itself being forbidden knowledge.
Elena Morin'stal, the young daughter of orchardkeepers, longs to leave
the valley of trees where she's lived her short life to see and experience
more of the world. She is a child of Alasea, a land whose inherent
magic of Chi long ago deserted it, leaving the land and its peoples
all but helpless in the face of Gul'gotha invaders from across the ocean.
Alasea's peoples have been subjugated and assimilated, and its true
history has been destroyed. Small, secret cadres and a few individuals
know the long-forgotten truths of the land, but Elena is privy to none
of them as the story begins. After a long day spent working in her
parents orchard, she is surprised and delighted by the long-awaited
occurence of her first blood. The joy of becoming a woman is short-lived
for Elena, though. A bizarre, uncontrollable power courses through and
from her, and the forbidden magic awakening in her calls the attention
of an ancient evil that has waited centuries for a prophecy to be fulfilled.
A young soldier and a wizened darkmage come to Elena's parents, demanding
that she be turned over as a wit'ch. When her parents refuse, all hell
breaks loose in appalling fashion, with powerful magics and revolting
otherwordly creatures leaving Elena bereft in less than a day of nearly
her entire family. Her beloved brother Joach is taken by the Dark Lord's
dragonlike skal'tum, and Elena is left to the assistance of a small
and extremely diverse group of erstwhile companions. They, too, have
been drawn by the budding of her power and by the lines of prophecy.
Er'ril of Standi is a wandering one-armed juggler, handsome but unbelievably
ancient, cursed by the failure of a desperate attempt against the invading
Gul'gotha to wander Alasea for centuries on end, never aging and never
dying. Nee'lahn is a nyphai, a tree sprite who is the last living of
her kind. Kral, a towering mountain man come down to the valley to
avenge the death of a kinsman on the skal'tum, is drawn into the fight
to keep Elena from the clutches of the Dark Lord.
As public opinion is (shockingly easily) swayed against Elena, and
while Er'ril and the others battle and flee to keep her from being taken,
another group of odd companions is being formed. Tol'chuk is a half-breed
og're banished from his home for accidentally killing another of his
tribe. Mogweed and Fardale are si'lura twins, members of a shapeshifting
race who are unfortunately stuck in the form of a human and of a treewolf
respectively. They too are banished, until such time as they can free
themselves of their static shapes and become true si'lura once again.
The og're and the si'lura agree to travel together across og're lands,
and unwittingly accept into their party Rockingham, the young soldier
who came with the darkmage to steal Elena away, and who is a creature
far more of the Dark Lord's making than even Rockingham himself is aware
of. The two groups will come together under a mountain and face off against the Dark
Lord and his powers in the first battle of the war for the soul of a land.
Wit'ch Fire is a serviceable first installment. With the
main characters introduced and their stories begun, the sequel should
walk a smoother road. Writing is art and craft, and as with either, improves
with practice. With momentum and the rocky first novel behind him,
James Clemens might just be able to carve a niche for himself on the
crowded shelves of the epic fantasy genre.