As much as I enjoyed Wit’ch Fire, the first part of James Clemens‘ The Banned and the Banished, it has to be said that this is better.
Wit’ch Storm picks up the tale of Elena Morinstal shortly after where the last book left off. Once again, the prologue intimates that the reader is party to a text that has been banned for being dangerous and is clearly not true — a hook I have found effective every time Clemens has used it. I not only want to know what happens within the book itself, but I want to get to the end of the series to know (1) who is the writer we are told is a liar and (2) what happened to make the tale so dangerous?
At any rate, I was drawn in inside a few pages, and that is very difficult to do. The plot is, as before, fast and frenetic and I won’t say too much about it or I’ll spoil it, but it would be safe to assume that Elena and her band are placed in mortal peril almost immediately, and remain so for much of the tale. Having said that, the plot itself and the concepts Clemens explores are better here than in the first book. The plot branches more and the episodes each strand follows are more interesting and are more immediately recognisable as relevant to the central focus of the story.
Also better are the characters — I previously cited Kral and Elena as weaker examples of characterisation, and in this novel they are immensely improved. Kral becomes more of a four dimensional personality and not just the ‘lumbering honourable warrior-type’ he sometimes felt like in Wit’ch Fire, but it is Elena who improves most. She is far less the typical adolescent and much more of an individual, displaying different aspects to her that were previously not really there. She is far more self-determining as well, less drawn along by the adults around her and far more able to make her own decisions — and is better for it. The new characters introduced are varied, but I personally found them far more interesting than I had expected to in a tale this rapidly unfolding.
The land of Alasea also grows in Wit’ch Storm. The scope of the first book and the pace at which it was told did not allow Clemens the opportunity to fill his creation out much, but in this volume the band travels further and across more varied lands. I still have some trouble understanding how the land functions as a whole — it often feels disconnected and disparate, but I actually quite like it, so he must be doing something right. In truth, however, I knocked half a star off because I didn’t picture the land as a functioning entity as well as I have come to expect in modern fantasy. Martin and Barclay do too convincing a job in equally fast-moving novels and in similar time frames, so in objectivity I have to mark Clemens down for that.
The other half star came off the score because there are one or two things I find slightly frustrating about Clemens. Clearly he is a very talented writer, is very creative, and has some original ideas that I greatly enjoyed. Having said that, he still uses some plot devices I have seen often before. The ‘long, dangerous journey’ is Homeric, and while I love the Odyssey, I had hoped an author who presented some originality early on would avoid such fantasy staples. The posse is still well in force, and while, as I have said before, the individuals within are novel, the use is not particularly so.
All that said, some of his new ideas deserve mention and praise. Some of his bad guys are exceptionally frightening and powerful but are often tragic, and this I like — they are not merely power-hungry, blood-lusting killing machines, but are often to be pitied — even as they are fought, and though they must be defeated. His use of a race that is a fantasy staple (you can probably guess, but I won’t name it in case it spoils the surprise) in such a totally different way to how I would have expected, I took particular delight in.
To summarise, Wit’ch Storm is a very, very good book that I enjoyed immensely. Clemens writes at astonishing pace and with a real verve and intensity that had me haring through to find out what happens next, and in truth I can rarely praise a book so highly. Clemens can grip me like no other, in truth — not even James Barclay can grip you so hard and not let go while maintaining this pace. So while I may criticise certain things about his work, the simple fact is that he can do it in such a style that I can forgive its flaws and simply enjoy it — and Clemens hasn’t reached his zenith within the saga yet. The best is still to come.
This is a terrific read, and a great continuation of a very good saga. James Clemens improves on his previous title, and I urge lovers of fantasy at its most escapist to read The Banned and the Banished whenever they can afford the late nights it inevitably induces!
FanLit thanks Tom Dare, of London, for this guest review.