I was hyped up for dragons, but Blood of an Exile let me down a little – it’s a classic-feeling adventure fantasy, just one a bit outdated in its representation of women.
Book: Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy provided free of charge by Tor Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence; injuries; attempted sexual assault.
Blood of an Exile is entertaining enough to start with, but quickly devolves from a classic-style adventure fantasy into an aggressively macho, violent fantasy which relies solely on action, rather than ever building any depth in its characters. Our hero is the Flawless Bershad, a dragonslayer cursed with immortality. He used to date the princess, but his father did something treasonous and so he was exiled. At the start of the book, his exile is revoked and he is sent on a mission to assassinate the emperor of another country, who has kidnapped the princess’s younger sister. And, er, that’s it. There are multiple other threads thrown out in this book – it opens with Bershad meeting an alchemist’s apprentice whose master has just been killed, leaving him adrift, who was instantly a more interesting character than Bershad himself, for example – but most of them are abandoned quickly in favour of Bershad trekking through multiple countries to reach the emperor. It has so much promise in the first 100 pages, offering glimpses into class systems, economics, the eco-system of the world, but then just peters out into a simplistic male power fantasy with little originality to it. I would have adored this book if the whole thing had been more like the first few chapters – the different breeds of dragons were really interesting, as were the different attitudes towards them, ranging from “terrified of the beast oh god please kill it” to “we should protect our indigenous wildlife”, and I love a look at the downsides and moral issues of immortality.
I was heartened by the appearance of Ashlyn, a princess and a scholar who had an interest in the natural world and an intelligent, big-picture view of the way that politics were affecting the eco-system – great, I thought, a fantasy that will explore some interesting and unusual issues of statecraft. But sadly, this aspect of her character and this aspect of the plot are quickly sidelined as she decides to go to war. Her entire plot becomes about being a ‘strong queen’, which is extremely boring. I also hated the fact that multiple villains tried to sexually assault her (of course), and referred to her with aggressively sexist language, and that she was largely there as a motivation for Bershad’s plot as the two of them had romantic history (and an unnecessary sex scene) Despite Ashlyn’s initial STEM-focus, which was incredibly cool, it seems the author suddenly had a revelation that “female characters are only strong if they are physical fighters”, and altered her character accordingly without revising the first section.
There are two other named female characters – a hard-boiled assassin who sleeps with the hero at the first opportunity (yes, even though he’s supposed to be in a relationship with Ashlyn, he can’t help himself), and Ashlyn’s sister, who appears only at the end of the book and is pretty shallowly drawn. Other than this, the only women seen are faceless and nameless foreign assassins, again referred to with derogatory sexist language, and slaughtered without ever being actual characters. If a new character ever shows up and has some relevance to the plot, they’re guaranteed to be male as a default. It’s weak, outdated, and misogynistic to sideline women in fantasy like this.
I’m personally not a fan of the angry-hero, brutal-camping-and-battles, peppered-with-the-word-fuck style of fantasy that seems so popular with a male audience these days. I hesitate to call this book grimdark, because it never even really gets that dark – it’s more like an attempt to subvert classic adventure fantasy that falls short of subversion and just ends up being a mediocre example of the tropes. It’s readable enough, and the action keeps you turning the pages. But had it been the smart, political, original fantasy the opening section promised, I would have adored this – and had it not promised that, I would have been okay with this being a middling epic fantasy. It’s the disconnect between the promise and the execution that has left me so disappointed. Three out of five cats.