Legends of the Serai by J.C. Hall
The Legends of the Serai, written by newcomer J. C. Hall and published by Dragon Moon Press, is a fantasy novel of a slightly different sort than most that are being written today. The author combines mythology with magic while at the same time emphasizing the personal relationships that exist and evolve among her characters all within the confines of this rather short novel. Many of the standard trappings of fantasy are absent from this book.
The world she creates is divided into various factions whose interconnections with one another are tenuous at best. Power is wielded by the Overseer, descendent of the Goddess whose love for a mortal man compelled her to renounce her immortality. The political hierarchy is divided among Noble Houses and their Guilds, the nomadic Serai and the Boundary Keepers among others. The Goddesses though, ultimately rule over everything, and in fact, the book begins with a prologue giving the reader a brief history explaining how and why the social world is structured so. Cara, a high officer in one of the Guilds, is the main character, and the book follows her exploits, relationships and struggles, that lead to her ultimate reunion with her estranged father and long lost brother.
There is no doubt that Ms. Hall is a very competent writer. Her prose in enjoyable to read, fluid and realistic. It is never stunted, false or preachy. The verbal interactions among her characters are natural and believable. Her main character benefits from a clear and concise personality and walks the line well between femininity and strength. Karvel-len, another important character, is just as well developed and quite interesting. Unfortunately, despite Ms. Hallís cogent and definite talent for writing, the story itself never seems to build the momentum or excitement that it needs in order to be compelling and a must read. Not enough time is devoted to description, and I often found myself struggling in order to form an image in my mind of the characters and the environment. It was only 326 pages in length, including the prologue, and it would have benefitted from at least another fifty or so pages devoted to building and enhancing the world in which it takes place and to giving the characters more depth and history.
I am reluctant to criticize Ms. Hall too vehemently because I enjoyed the book from a stylistic point of view. I even went so far as to read it a second time before sitting down to write this review, sincerely hoping that I would enjoy the story more. Yet, even then I found it somewhat difficult to follow. Often, I was unable to determine which character was talking in many chapters without rereading the dialogue. With only a few exceptions, the people who populate the book are not defined clearly enough, nor are some of the relationships between them. Additionally, there also seemed to be no discernible reason why some characters were magic wielders and others were not. And, what powers they did exhibit were unexciting and unimaginative, as were the weapons that they wielded.
The prophesies that surfaced occasionally were also quite easy to see through, whereas the characters seemed to find them confusing and obscure.
The story suffered in many instances from not enough description and explanation, which Ms. Hall could easily have imbedded in the dialogue which she handles so well, rather than through simplistic historical statements that tend to become burdensome and boring. The world she created should have been far more intricate and rich, fantastic if you will, than she allowed it to be, and the challenges that the characters faced should have been grander in scope. I found myself constantly wanting more from her in that regard and always coming up short. The book never seemed to attain the exhilarating heights and dispiriting depths that make fantasy so unique.
To sum it up, the circumstances and quests are simply not big enough or important enough to be terribly interesting. Overall, the heroes are not sufficiently heroic and the villains are not nefarious enough. There is no monumental threat to the world that requires a superhuman effort to thwart, and therefor, the efforts of the protagonists seem rather routine and mundane. In the end, the Legends of the Serai fails to capture the heart and thus make it a book that you cannot possibly put down. Nevertheless, and I mean this sincerely, I do not doubt that Ms. Hallís next effort will be far superior and less tentative than this one is. She is a gifted writer in need of a strong and forceful editor who can push her to be bolder and reach for the dramatic heights her talent for prose is clearly capable of attaining. Regardless of my reservations about the Legends of the Serai, I am anxious to read more from her.
Reviewed by Gary Wassner
Author of the GemQuest series
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