‘Exile’ marks the debut novel of fantasy author Martin Owton and was nominated for a British Fantasy Award in the ‘Best Newcomer’ category. On reading, it lives up to this accolade, delivering a well-constructed tale of heroism that should appeal to fans of traditional fantasy.
The story follows protagonist Aron, exiled in the fall of his homeland, a swordsman hired by the Earl of Nandor to rescue his heir from captivity in the fortress of Sarazan. When the rescue attempt goes sideways, Aron finds himself on the run and on course towards a confrontation with his father’s killer.
The world itself is functional, and the world-building remains in the background, never encroaching on the story. It has a medieval European feel familiar to most fantasy readers, but it is effectively evoked without over-dwelling on irrelevant detail. It is ‘low-fantasy’ in that it has none of the ‘Tolkienesque’ trappings of dragons, orcs or elves and the like, but focuses on human affairs, with a dash of magic and gods. What gives the book life is the cast of characters, all of whom have nuance and agency, (even if restricted by social position).
Aron himself is likeable, competent without being arrogant, and determined to try and do the right thing—though perhaps a little too irresistible to women. Whilst that might sound like ‘standard fantasy hero’ Aron is far from being one-dimensional, and his character and flaws become more rounded out as the story of his conflicting obligations unfolds. Some of his backstory, and that of the world of Darien, is outlined in the prologue and if I had a quibble, it is that this start is a little ponderous, but don’t let that put you off—the book kicks into gear with the main story that follows.
The story progresses through duels and fights (including one particularly epic one towards the end), the politics of families and inheritance, kidnapping, treachery and betrayal, the influence of wizards and deities, taut dialogue, humour (most of which comes via a rogue named Davo), and a spark of romance. Whilst magic has a role to play, it is restrained and rarely a ‘get out of jail’ card. Again, the magic is depicted in a way that is familiar enough but works well.
The plotting is deftly handled, weaving together storyline several threads and injecting tension as events escalate. The plot flows through several twists, turns, shocks and setbacks, none of them feeling forced. It eschews the grandiosity of much epic fantasy and goes for a smaller-scale, more intimate heroic tale and is written with a clean, uncomplicated style.
The fight scenes in particular are well-choreographed, intense and gritty with enough incident to avoid sameness. The tone is moderated towards the lighter side of grimdark—though it certainly does not shy from bloodiness it refrains from becoming gratuitously graphic.
Like a really good home-cooked meal Exile is not fancy, but unpretentious fare that delivers something very satisfying from familiar ingredients—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Recommended as one to curl up with on a cold winter night.
‘Exile’ is the first in a duology and the sequel ‘Nandor’ is out now, also available as a hardback from Tickety Boo press or via eBook at Amazon.