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Soulwoven: Exile is the second instalment of the Soulwoven series by Jeff Seymour, and has proven to be one of the few series to not catch a serious case of sequelitis. Rather than feel like a delay between the rising action and the climax, or like a pale imitation of the first book, Exile builds excellently on the strong base it establishes in the first instalment. Remaining strong to its roots of showing us very real characters in very serious circumstances, the thoughts and feelings of the crew of this band feel identifiable and realistic. A much more serious work in terms of theme and tone, Seymour adroitly handles a much more mature and dark series of events with characters that show true depth and engagement with their world and each other.

Darkness is falling.

The dragon Sherduan is free, and the fate of the world balances on the tips of its claws. Friends and brothers are separated. Apart, they travel through shadow.

A young man born a monster wrestles with his heritage. New lovers cling to happiness as the world crumbles. A prince discovers that, in the end, his weakness may outweigh his determination. Two soulweavers find in homecomings not solace but soul-crushing ordeal.

Those who stood before the black wall when Sherduan was summoned were chosen. But by whom? And for what?

And will their courage create enough light to push back the darkness?

In my review of Seymour’s first novel Soulwoven, I drew comparisons to the more classic and epic fantasy of Tolkien or Weis and Hickman, where the events surrounding the characters are of utmost importance and world-shaking significance. This is no less true in Soulwoven: Exile, and as in the original, Seymour manages to carry this large storyline on the backs of very small characters. While some of them have power, even a great deal of power, they are almost all uncertain in it, or very new to it. There’s a certain element of pathos to this story that I’m not sure I’ve seen elsewhere. This group of erstwhile companions has set out to stop an event almost nobody even believes is coming. Under the leadership of a young Prince who struggles constantly with the need to be a leader even when he lacks the certainty to be a leader, and with the assistance of more powerful adults whose motives are largely inscrutable to the youths that comprise the main cast, they basically fail anyway.

Trying to deal with the knowledge that they’ve failed to prevent the Dragon from rising, they’re hurt, alone, and very far from home, and yet still feel the obligation to try and do something about what has happened. Their ability to not just give in to despair and simply await the end they feel is coming is inspiring, and no sooner do they decide they still need to try and warn everybody what is coming, the same people who basically ignored them the first time, they just continue to be shat upon from a great height. So many frigging horrible things happen to these kids (I say, from my lofty perch of 30 to their youth of 16 and 17) that you wonder whether you’d even be able to keep going half as long and as far as they do.

The amalgamation of world-spanning events with incredibly personal focus on characters creates a kind of connection it is increasingly rare to find in fantasy. It feels like too many authors are stuck in the mode of quickly sketching out already complete and developed characters so they can focus instead on the plot of the story, or else on keeping the story smaller to allow characters to develop as the main focus. The only other recent fantasy I can really think of that manages to combine both the large plot and the close focus on characters is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, which were, each as I read them, most of my favourite books the year I tackled them all. But where Erikson leaves a lot unspoken and communicates a great deal through implication and inference, Seymour brings us right down to eye level. We see and feel and experience along with these characters all of the terrible things that happen to them as the cost they are paying for trying to save the world.

This brings me to the point I raised in the introduction to this review: This is a much darker story than the original. The way Seymour handles abandonment, imprisonment, torture, rape, death, it’s just such a fine balance to treat it with the seriousness and gravity it deserves, and still manage to keep even a modicum of hope alive that anything will ever work out for these kids. I’d been in discussion with Jeff about the guest article that accompanies this review, and before I’d had a chance to actually read the novel, I’d ended up already spoiled that this book deals with rape, so I sort of saw it coming to some extent, but it nevertheless managed to just kick me right in the gut. Obviously I’ve read stories that deal with rape before, but this was just handed so close to perfectly that I really admire the skill with which Seymour can write it, and am sort of afraid to ask from whence that ability comes. Managing to communicate the horror and the loathing that goes with something like that without being explicit or gauche takes a great deal of skill. Managing to put us in the thoughts of somebody who has been through that so we can begin to understand what it is like is even harder. That he manages to do this without any element of the external narrative even hinting at these characters being anything other than victims, that he can make us feel their feelings of shame and worthlessness while still making us refuse to give up on the spark within them that can fight it, that’s just a wonder.

I’m starting to feel like the overall theme of the Soulwoven series is ‘Hope.’ Not a hope for a certainty that things will turn out alright, not a hope that the good guys will win, and the Dragon will be defeated, and that these are the characters that will accomplish it. It’s not about hoping that Litnig, Cole, Quay, and Ryse are all going to end up living happily ever after. I mean, yes, we hope for that, but the hope embodied by Soulwoven is just the quiet and subtle hope that there are people in the world with the strength of character to keep on fighting even when everything is lost. I don’t actually know how this series is going to end. The third title is called Soulwoven: Redemption, and at this point, who or what is going to be redeemed and how is entirely up in the air. I don’t feel confident that any of these characters is going to live to see the finale, and if the ones who do won’t wish they hadn’t. But they have hope, and it is the quiet and subtle hope that you feel, deep down inside, can accomplish anything.

Dan received an Advance Review copy of this book from the author.

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