Fiction Review: The Exile’s Violin (Tethys Chronicles, Book 1)

BY R. S. HUNTER
Publisher: Hydra Publications, September 2012
Review by Barbora Lyčková

exileCoverA fast-paced steampunk adventure of simple words and complex politics

Imagine living the ordinary life of a young girl in Vorleaux, the beautiful wrought-iron capital of the Republic of Alesir. There is school to attend during the day, open-windowed trolleys to travel around the city in, and a warm supper every evening. True, your parents have to pay a monthly ‘insurance fee’ to the local gang, and perhaps the police aren’t as efficient as they should be when it comes to dealing with rioters in the street, but, all things considered, there really isn’t that much to complain about.

At least not until your parents are murdered.

Meet Jacquie Renairre, a young private investigator with a roguish attitude and the manners of a seasoned adventurer. She recalls the night her family was killed as clearly as ever–after all, even though she herself managed to escape, she lost an eye in the struggle. Now, several years later, armed with a trusty pair of revolvers and a rich-beyond-dream, bored-beyond-imagination best friend, she is ready for revenge.

At first glance, The Exile’s Violin makes for an interesting read: an exciting setting with a complicated political background, a promising plot, and a main protagonist who had actually lost an eye rather than merely sporting a cool yet unrealistic scar across half of her face (I can think of only one other steampunk-literature example where the author was brave enough to go through with this, and that is Philip Reeve and his fierce Amazon of the Mortal Engines series, Hester Shaw). As wonderful as it all sounds, though, there is one small drawback: Hunter’s style of writing.

The plot, as action-packed and fast-paced as one can get, is held together by plain and simple phrases; and while I am aware of the fact that some readers may prefer language that is more down-to-earth, it is definitely not my cup of tea. As a reader, I enjoy complex sentences and interesting vocabulary, neither of which is to be found in this particular novel. What’s more, there were many suspicious places where some simple editing, such as the removal of repetitive words, could have done wonders: “It was a large steel box with slits large enough for rifle barrels to fit through in case an enemy invaded the base. It looked large enough to hold at least fifty soldiers at once.” (chp. 28, emphasis mine).

Clichés abound: “She just knew [he] was aboard one of [the airships], probably standing on the bridge laughing as his plan unfolded. She clenched her teeth at the image. She would make him pay, no matter what.” (chp. 27); “That was the last thing she wanted to hear, more taxes placed on the lower classes while the wealthy used their political power to keep from paying.” (chp. 5).

What’s more, every so often there was a noticeable contradiction in the flow of the story. Allow me an example: Jacquie is being led into an audience chamber and, on the way, she recognizes “the Imperial Royal Guards. The looks in their eyes frightened her. Killers. All of them were trained killers. She hoped she’d never see them in action.” Half an hour later, a military coup occurs, with foreign soldiers running “up to the dais and efficiently [disarming] the Royal Guards before they could even raise their weapons.” (chp. 16). In this moment, the reader becomes confused; I, at least, had to go back and read the introduction to the scene again, to see whether I was remembering that part about the near-invincibility of the Imperial Guards correctly. Even if it was written this way on purpose (enemy soldiers even deadlier than the Guards, the element of surprise, etc., etc.), I still think that an author shouldn’t puzzle their reader enough to force them to re-read entire sections of the novel.

So, as much as I liked the characters, especially Jacquie’s patient and long-suffering sidekick, in the end the style ended up being so taxing for me that I almost didn’t finish the book. I cannot shake the feeling that had there been more beta-readers, perhaps the novel would have ended up being accessible to a wider audience. As it is, I would recommend The Exile’s Violin only to fans of action-packed stories: the plot is there, it is strong, and it keeps moving forward.

If, however, you enjoy books not only for plot, but also for how they’re written, give the Tethys Chronicles a wide berth.

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