The Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton

The basic outline of this book is one of those that can be simplified down to ‘the child destined for greater things’. Think EH White’s ‘Wart’, think Tad Williams’ Simeon and Miriamele, here we have a child with no name at first but who is called Imrhien, a character with problems – she is a scarred, hideous mute. With no recollection of her name or past, the girl soon realizes that in rather typical ‘quest’ fashion her only hope of improving her life lies in distant Caermalor, where a wise woman called Maeve One-Eye might be able to change her looks and restore her memories. To get there, Imrhien must survive a dangerous wilderness, filled with creatures both helpful and nasty, and she encounters others to help her reach her destiny.

From this brief outline it should be clear that the book is a ‘quest’ and a ‘rite of passage’ novel, written in a romantic style (in the wider sense of the word) and lyrical setting. It is the story of Imrhien’s past and her future, once her destiny is foreseen. This is a fairly common story – is there anything here that makes this story different?

Ms Dart-Thornton has managed to cover many components of the Fantasy field here – there are Pegasus-like winged horses, ridden by the WindRiders, wild mystics, mad scientists and adventurers (Sianadh, a character who helps Imrhien and rather ‘Hagrid-like’ in build and composure, is a self-professed eccentric and adventurer), a rugged (and of course, handsome) Aragorn-type figure by the name of Thorn, fairies and fair folk, there are goblin-like nasties called un -seelies. (The nicer creatures are called Seelies). There are huge towers, machines, there are dirigible airships reminding me of Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable stories. Without making the point too laboured, Ms Dart-Thornton has a clear love of many of these fantasy icons and managed to amalgamate many of the images resonating in other’s work, both contemporary and ancient to her own story. Indeed one of the strengths of this story is that the sense of folktale and myth are prevalent here, with many of the strange creatures within based on old folklore.

This is done with a certain degree of self-pretentiousness that will either be enjoyed or irritate. Ms Dart-Thornton uses a wide variety of vocabulary to deliver her message, something which reminded me of older fantasy writers such as Lord Dunsany, and will either enthral contemporary readers or anger them. Let me illustrate here with an example chosen from random, which is typical of the novel –

‘Sunlight brushed Imrhien’s skin with warm flakes, although the breeze was knife-sharp and bitter. Stamped against a blue enamel sky, the first wattle blooms of Winter bubbled in bright, soft gilt on the trees and powdered the distance with gold-dust. Oak-leaves yet clung to ancient groves by the wayside, in masses of bronze and saffron that could not outshine the wattles’ glory.’ (page 424)

This again reminded me of other work – the style is rather self-consciously grandiose – rather Gormenghastian – not (from me) necessarily a criticism, but again the resonance of other writer’s work is there. Unfortunately, whilst trying to develop the richness of the tapestry upon which this story is portrayed, the novel becomes a travelogue, with long, leisurely and, dare I say it, cinematic views across its varied environment. This can be a little annoying for those wanting fast paced action- there are places where the detail of the environment seem to overwhelm the narrative and Ms Dart-Thornton has a habit of filling in backstory with large paragraphs of information-dump. However if the reader can accept that this is not a book that is in a rush to get to its end, then it is an enjoyable if unashamedly romantic read.

Rather disconcertingly however, after building up the story through the lead character’s trials and tribulations, it is a little surprising to find that the first book ends abruptly, though at a rather predictable point. The last thirty pages or so seem to race through events, having spent a lot of time getting there.

Indeed the author has clearly attempted to produce something which echoes both the romanticism of early fantasy novels, as well as recreate a mythic quality through the modification of what seems to be (mainly British) folklore. To some degree she succeeds. For a first novel it is most impressive.

To sum up – on balance, lots of positive comments about this one. If you like ‘old’ folk tales, varied vocabulary, stories about goblins and elves, witches and monsters, Gormenghast, The Once and Future King or perhaps even Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody series or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood you will enjoy this book. To those who these tales are new, I am sure that The Ill Made Mute will dazzle and entertain. To those who know these older stories, the fun will be to pick out the references from other myths and legends. At the end of the novel many of the problems are left unresolved and I was left wondering what will happen in the next novel in the series, The Lady of the Sorrows – which I guess is part of the skill of a writer, to leave an audience wanting more. It is also a good sign that at the end I was keen to read more, which is what I will do next.

Reviewed by Mark Yon

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