The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles, #1)by Melanie Rawn Published 07 Mar 1997
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A thousand years ago, Mageborns fled prejudice and persecution to colonize the planet Lenfell--a perfect refuge for those whose powers were perceived as a threat by people not gifted with magic. But the greater the magic, the greater the peril. Lenfell was soon devastated by a war between rival Mageborn factions that polluted the land with Wild Magic and unleashed hideous specters called Wraithenbeasts. Now, generations later, someone is planning another war on the still crippled planet that will tear three Mageborn sisters apart.
"I am mad (petulant, in fact!) that I can't immediately read book number two in the Exiles trilogy.... Melanie Rawn has established beyond doubt that she is a great writer of fantasy and The Ruins of Ambrai will join the Dragon series in my library of favorites for years to come." --Realms of Fantasy
"The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles, #1)" Reviews
I loved this book, but I would recommend against picking it up. If you read this and the sequel, the story draws you in and leaves you wanting to know what happens next, along with a bit of what happened in the past as some of the backstory has not yet been revealed. But the third book in the series is MIA, and has been for decades. It may come out one day, it may not. However, my feeling is that reading something that leaves you this hungry for more is just an exercise in futility until that one is released. If you want to read some Melanie Rawn, read her Dragon Prince/Star books, or the new ones she's been working on.
This has to be my ultimate favorite book. Not 'one of my favorites' but THE favorite book of my collection. There are so many things that I love about this series.
First, I love how the author tells the story. Specifically, how she spends chapters describing the journey/events of one character's life, and then goes back in time and describes those same events from the perspective of another, opposing character. It's such a neat way to give the reader an understanding of what happens and why things happen. Ultimately, you find yourself cheering for both characters, and gives so much depth to the story.
Second, I love the society the author has created. People aren't necessarily citizens of a nation/country/state, they are citizens of a family. It's a brilliant idea. It focuses on the connections and loyalties between people and family members.
Third, the author has no problem killing off main characters -- not that this happens often. But, you're constantly sitting on edge because you never know if the character you've grown to love is going to live past the next few pages.
Like a multitude of fantasy readers of my generation, I was a big fan of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince and Dragon Star series back in the 90s. And when The Ruins of Ambrai, first volume in the Exiles trilogy, was published in 1994, I purchased the hardcover edition as soon as it came out. Did the same when its sequel, The Mageborn Traitor, was released. Daunted by the proliferation of big fantasy series on the market, like I did with several other SFF sequences, I elected not to read them until the entire trilogy was done. Which, in this case at least, was a good thing. For as most of you know, the final installment, The Captal's Tower, has yet to see the light. But now that Rawn began working on the third volume last year, I've decided that it was high time to give this series a shot.
According to most of the author's fans, Exiles is by far Rawn's best work to date. Understandably, I had lofty expectations when I sat down to read The Ruins of Ambrai. Other than her latest high fantasy series, The Glass Thorns, published by Tor Books, I've read everything she has written. Hence, I know what she brings to the dance, so far be it from me to doubt anyone's claim that this trilogy is Melanie Rawn writing at the top of her game. But as I've said before, expectations have a way to come back and bite you in the ass, and this is exactly what happened to me with this one.
After a confusing beginning and an uninspired few hundred pages, I had a feeling that this novel would be a complete disaster. I mean, nothing worked for me and this was by far the author's weakest book that I had ever read. I should have known better than to throw in the towel, for Rawn came through with a captivating engame and an interesting finale. Sadly, it wasn't enough to save the book. It's not a total loss, mind you, and I do want to read the subsequent volumes to discover what happens next. But even though it got better toward the end, The Ruins of Ambrai suffers from too many shortcomings to be a satisfying reading experience in its own right. Given how much love this series has been getting over the years, one has to wonder if The Mageborn Traitor raises the bar to another level, for the first installment cannot possibly warrant that much appreciation. Only time will tell. . .
Here's the blurb:
A thousand years ago, Mageborns fled prejudice and persecution to colonize the planet Lenfell—pristine, untouched, a perfect refuge for those whose powers were perceived as a threat by people not gifted with magic. But the greater the magic, the greater the peril—and Lenfell was soon devastated by a war between rival Mageborn factions that polluted land, sea, and air with Wild Magic and unleashed the hideous specters known as Wraithenbeasts.
Generations after that terrible war, with the land recovered from crippling wounds and the people no longer threatened by genetic damage, Mageborns still practice their craft—but under strict constraints. Yet so long as the rivalry between the Mage Guardians and the Lords of Malerris continues, the threat of another war is ever-present. And someone has been planning just such a war for many long years, the final strike in a generations-old bid for total power…
Worldbuilding is a facet in which Melanie Rawn usually shines and to a certain extent that's the case with this novel. She created an intriguing matriarchal society and is in complete control of the genealogy and the convoluted history of her universe. Problem is, the presentation of everything leaves a lot to be desired. As far as the setting is concerned, the world and its people truly come alive through the author's vivid narrative. But most of the information is conveyed to the reader through some massive info-dumps that really bog down the narrative. Too often the reader is subjected to a barrage of names/family trees/family connections/history. This is as confusing as it is overwhelming, and makes it quite difficult to keep track of everyone's loyalty and where they fit in the greater scheme of things. Interestingly enough, I didn't have any problem with the over-the-top matriarchal society and its ramifications until I got to the Selective Index at the end of the novel. When I learned the planet was colonized during what is referred to as the Second Great Migration by thousands of mainly Catholic settlers following a 7-year intergalatic voyage, things immediately went downhill. Since Rawn doesn't elaborate on any detail that could have explained the shift from a more patriarchal to a decidedly hardcore matriarchal society, all of a sudden one of the underpining elements of the series' backdrop lost most of its credibility and didn't make any sense anymore.
The political intrigue at the heart of the tale is also a bucket that doesn't always hold much water. True, there are many unexpected political twists and turns, but the inherent details suffer from just a little bit of analysis. Ambrai, for example, appears to have been one of the world's largest economic and cultural centers. And yet, when the city gets destroyed gratuitously, the majority of its citizens murdered like vermin, an act of utter cruelty and violence, the council doesn't seem to mind much. For all that one of the greatest cities that world has ever known has been devastated with extreme prejudice, it's pretty much business as usual afterward. Even an incredibly ineffectual organisation like the UN would have, pointless as the exercise would have been, vehemently criticized and condemned in no uncertain terms such a barbarous act. The same thing occurs following the apparent destruction of the Lords of Malerris. In addition, the political system as a whole doesn't always make much sense. Early on, we learn that a democracy governs the various provinces. Be that as it may, it is evident that Anniyas rules over the council with an iron fist in what is essentially a dictatorship. And yet, when the time comes for a meaningless motion to be accepted, an extremely tight vote is necessary to see it go through. I understand what the bad guys are attempting to accomplish, but it's just that the politicking involved is at times quite gauche in its execution. And the much-anticipated revolution, when it finally comes, occurs "off screen." As a result, unless you can overlook such weaknesses in the backdrop of this tale, the overall plot finds itself on very thin ice throughout the entire book.
Moreover, having what could be one of the most pivotal plot points of the story rely on the decryption of an old nursery rhyme did stretch the bounds of credulity past their breaking point. Melanie Rawn is not usually a writer that takes cheap shortcuts, so it was disappointing to see the good guys puzzle out this secret so easily.
If there is one specific aspect Rawn habitually excels at, it would have to be characterization. She has a knack for creating endearing characters and her works are usually filled with memorable protagonists. The Ruins of Ambrai does indeed feature a few, but there are also too many characters that don't remain true to themselves and act in ways that goes against everything we've been told about them. I liked the idea of having three sisters seperated and warded so they can't remember each other and I was looking for some kind of balance between the different perspectives. That didn't quite happen and this lack of balance influenced the plot in a negative way. There is too much of Sarra, period. And a good portion of the scenes she appears in are ultimately unnecessary and could have been replaced by a brief summary of her comings and goings. All that traveling across the world to retrieve Mage Guardians turned out to be extraneous for the most part and did little but bloat an already too large pagecount. Regarding Sarra, I'm still trying to understand why anyone in the Rising would defer to a petulant, annoying, and often clueless adolescent girl. Sarra and her sister Glenin are two sides of the same coin. The former is over-the-top good, in that she wants to end poverty, inequalities, etc. Glenin, on the other hand, due to her upbringing is the polar opposite and is over-the-top evil and cruel. In the end, their being too much, one way or the other, makes it impossible to relate to either sister. Collan, the bard, was interesting at the start, but the inevitable love story with Sarra more or less killed whatever he had going for him. Which leaves young Cailet, by far the most compelling of the sisters. Her storylines offers the most fascinating surprises and I'm looking forward to discovering what Rawn has in store for her in the future. The supporting cast is made up of quite a few engaging men and women, chief among them Gorynel Desse, many of which die before the end of the novel. Melanie Rawn has never been afraid to kill off important characters, so it was nice to see her add a few to the bodycount in this one. I just wish Sarra would have been part of those dead bodies. I found her to be insufferable throughout and I'm aware that she's in for the long haul. So there's no helping that. . .
Having everyone warded and not remembering each other makes for some confusing storylines and it can be rough going through some sections. And once the wards finally come down, it defies comprehension how quickly everything comes together between Collan and Sarra and Cailet and their entourage. The final showdown, with the rebellion not even part of the narrative, is also a bit weird. Also, the aftermath of the Captal's battle with the man responsible for so many atrocities is never truly explained. I'm still not sure how or why everything happened the way it did.
In terms of pace, The Ruins of Ambrai is a slog for more than two-thirds of its length. The beginning introduces all four main protagonists before they are warded and is very slow-moving. The action takes place over the course of 25 years, and it is often confusing because at this juncture it is impossible to know how these different threads are connected. In the next few hundred pages, Sarra, Collan, and Cailet don't remember who they are, so again the reader is often left wondering what the heck is going on. Gorynel Desse appears to be the only one who knows and he's definitely not telling anyone. The last hundred pages or so see the rhythm pick up as we move toward the endgame. Things finally start to make sense and, even though a lot of storylines are rushed, the resolution of these elevates the plot to another level. Too bad all the info-dumps, the poor political intrigue, and the occasional clumsy execution prevented this book from achieving its full potential. In the long run, Rawn closes the show with style and aplomb with an ending that promises a lot of good things to come. It's just that you have to go through a lot of extraneous material to get to the good stuff.
Now that all of the groundwork has been laid out, I'm hoping that Melanie Rawn can return to form and that The Mageborn Traitor will be everything it can be. Unfortunately, although it gets much better at the end, all those aforementioned shortcomings make The Ruins of Ambrai Rawn's weakest work to date.
Please note that both The Ruins of Ambrai and The Mageborn Traitor are currently not available in digital format. I asked the folks at Daw Books and they said that they wouldn't be made into ebooks until they had a manuscript for The Captal's Tower in hand.
For more reviews, check out www.fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com
I read this book when I was around fourteen and I'm not sure what possessed me to read it again but I did. When I was fourteen I really enjoyed this book. It was the first book in the genre that I had read and it was wonderful.
As an adult, I loved it even more. I understood the connections better, the need for the rising. I enjoyed e-learning Collan, Sarra, Glenin and Cailet's back story and watching them grow into their roles. The heartbreak as the rising continued kept me enthralled as well as the spats between Collan and Sarra, which had me laughing. All the characters where well rounded and the story is one of my favourites.
The only thing that annoyed me was that the end seemed a little rushed and anticlimactic. It seemed like the big fight scene at the end really didn't matter and I wanted it to to so much more than it it.
This story is about family, loyalty and the need to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of which side you are on.
Sigh. I love it when an author takes the time to build a complex, interesting world. But in this one, it's so complex that at times the plot gets drowned out by the explainitis going on from the writer -- this was a book that was gorgeous in tone, and in language, but really needed an editor to trim it down. Hence the three star review. And I keep hearing rumours of a third book in the series, but haven't seen anything yet.
For the complete review, please go here:
Yarg! Reminds me of Celia Dart Thornton and her unending dictionary descriptions of irrelevant rooms, only here it seems to be pocket 1-dimensional sketches of completely irrelevant characters. I swear I've been introduced to 200+ characters by name, almost none of whom I remember or care about because they're mostly walking stereotypes anyways. In fact, I was remarking on this very fact to myself just before reading the following line from the book:
"Veller Granfallin, for instance, figured as a villain in all the histories, but was never portrayed any more deeply than a layer of dust on the tabletop"
This, in addition to being a great example of the ridiculously over-the-top metaphorical language that seems to be required of modern fantasy, perfectly describes most of the forgettable characters in the book.
Which is a shame, really, because unlike Ms. Thornton, Ms. Rawn actually appears to have a story to tell. There is an interesting world here with an intriguing matriarchal society and some interesting political twists in an otherwise run-of-the-paper-mill evil wizards taking over the world story.
Or perhaps I should say there would be an interesting world and political twists if only the details held together at all, which they mostly don't. For example, the government is a representative democracy, but its leader has taken over enough power single-handedly to completely destroy one of the 15 member-states, apparently without comment or protest from any of the others. So shes really an absolute dictator with a puppet government, right? But no, mere chapters later she is scrabbling for votes in council and not doing things because they might be perceived badly. Hello? You just had every single man, woman, and child in California executed and every building in the state burnt to the ground, and you're pushing for votes in Congress about tax laws? Do whatever the hell you want; they obviously can't stop you. Which reminds me; she has the state of Ambrai invaded by the army because they attempt to thwart her. Ambrai was apparently one of the biggest economic and cultural centres on the planet and yet apparently every single person who lived there was killed or driven off, and noone even came back to loot the bodies - much less re-settle - for 17 years. That is so fantastically wildly improbable - both the efficiency of its destruction and the lack of resettlement - that I hadn't gotten over it before some refugees finally wander in and start living off the food left lying around 2 decades before! And in a world where we continuously get it pushed down our throats how poor and downtrodden the average peasant is!
It goes on (people risking their lives based on the assumption that an ancient nursery rhyme about pigs refers to a particular (modern) toy store; a matriarchy of Victorian-era sexism reversed, but with over a third of its prime governmental body males - and almost all of the members of the cult of bad guys; a Muslim-like stricture against males going outside with their heads uncovered... which is apparently followed by every other male in the society except all of the main characters; etc...) but I'll stop. The worst thing is that half the time the contradictory details weren't even necessary to the story - just leave them out and you're fine!
But I persevered, because I did at least want to see how the few more interesting characters got along, and see what happens with their little rebellion, and to find out how the evil baddie gets it in the end. Wish I hadn't bothered. The baddy gets eaten by the Ghost of Christmas Past (or some other previously unmentioned spiritual Deus Ex Machina plot device, I forget,) the baddy's henchman turns to good apropos of nothing and his daughter forgives him his extensive list of brutal butcheries on the basis of blood ties she didn't even know existed 5 minutes before, and the rebellion happens off camera with the good guys just turning up and shouting "Hurrah! We won!" The interesting characters? They fall in love and get married in direct contrast to everything they stood for up to that point - but thats fairly standard grade-school hair-pulling romance, and so the most believable thing by far about the end of the book.