One day, Elena Morinstal, a young girl working in her parents’ orchards, finds herself thrust into a battle to save her very world from a Dark Lord set on destroying all. She learns that she is the fabled Wit’ch, whose destiny is to either rescue her land of Alasea or doom it, and soon embarks on an epic quest to unite all of the vastly different societies which populate it in order to vanquish their greatest foe.
Although a brief description of James Clemens’ brilliant The Banned and the Banished quintet (composed of Wit’ch Fire, Wit’ch Storm, Wit’ch War, Wit’ch Gate, and Wit’ch Star) might lead one to assume that it is one of the countless interchangeable epic fantasy series that owe no small debt to Tolkien, it is actually an outstanding example of the genre that uses many if not all of the classic tropes and reassigns them in a manner that, if not completely unique, is certainly rare. The quality of the writing and the plotting, in particular, alone distinguish this work.
What is initially striking about The Banned and the Banished is Clemens’ framing device. One of the series’ central conceits is that the story proper is a translation of a set of ancient scrolls, relating the completely fictional and dangerous story of the Wit’ch. The story is so dangerous that only university students are allowed to read it. The penalty for anyone else to read the scrolls, or for a student to allow anyone else to do so, is death. This is, again, for the good of society, because were these lies to be spread about the land once having been ruled by magic, the entire system could collapse.
What these introductions do, of course, is to cause the reader to distrust the professors and the “modern” society in the external narrative; a society that suppresses knowledge for the “good” of the people is an instant red flag. It also sets up the central dramatic irony that no matter how victorious the Wit’ch might be in the internal narrative, the reader knows that in the future, this world will be run by a fascist government. And this is fascinatingly paralleled within the story itself, when we learn that the knowledge of the earlier Wit’ch has been similarly suppressed hundreds of years before Elena’s birth by the male mages, who hid the fact that a woman’s magic could be just as (if not more) powerful than theirs. And then during Elena’s lifetime, the Dark Lord has attempted to hide the existence of magic from the human-populated areas of Alasea.
In the early chapters of Wit’ch Fire, in fact, it seems like all of the magical creatures have been driven away at this point in history, but soon we come to meet an extremely diverse number of species, including ny’phai (similar to wood nymphs), og’res, mer’ai (sea-dwelling people, similar to mermaids), d’warves, si’luran (shapeshifters), el’vin (elves), dragons, and more. Each of the species generally keeps to itself or outrightly dislikes certain other species, usually due to a mix of ancient misunderstandings that have later solidified into either stereotype or myth. Knowledge as power is perhaps the theme around which the entire series revolves.
And one of the most impressive aspects of how the narrative unfolds is that while it first focuses on Elena and a small group of travellers–Er’ril, an immortal, one-armed warrior, Nee’lahn, a nyphai, Meric, an el’vin, Mogweed and Fardale, si’luran brothers, Kral, a mountain man, and Tol’chuk, an og’re–the story eventually expands into a world-spanning epic with countless characters, all of whom have their own lives and agendas.
While the typical fantasy epic will mostly hinge on the accomplishments of a single figure (there may be other important tertiary characters, sidekicks to the hero, or even secondary heroes, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, but they are not on the same level as a Frodo), The Banned and the Banished has a large number of “Chosen Ones.” Just about every character from a different species or society who eventually comes to join Elena has had ancient prophecies written about the important role he or she will play in saving his or her people. Each of these characters begins his or her quest with a very myopic view of the world, only caring about protecting his or her own people, but each comes to learn over the course of the journey that maintaining allegiance to his or her own people alone will doom everybody. And in the end, Elena of course is the one to perform the climactic action, but each plays a crucial role and each is allowed his or her own satisfying arc.
At times, one cannot imagine how each of this enormous cast of characters could possibly be well served, even in five books’ worth of text, and yet by the end, each character has been. This is greatly helped by Clemens’ remarkable ability to imbue a great deal of complexity and life into a character in a short amount of time. Each time he introduces a new character, even far into the series, it takes only a few pages for the reader to care about his or her plight. Some of the characters I came to connect with most deeply were introduced very late in the tale. And yet no matter how late any given one appears, he or she is given a full back story, and often, again, proves him or herself to be a very important person, in the annals of his or her society’s mythology. This is the main reason that unlike other fantasy series, when The Banned and the Banished abandons its protagonist, even for hundreds of pages at a time, I never found myself anything but thoroughly involved in whatever plot was being pursued at that moment.
The Banned and the Banished is a story composed of an endless number of smaller stories, each of which is a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. Each of the minor stories is a key to unlocking the series’ larger mysteries, and all of the mysteries eventually unlock one another in manners that are unexpected and at the same time make complete sense in retrospect, so each successive revelation feels both genuinely surprising and inevitable. Furthermore, the plotting, themes, and character arcs dovetail flawlessly from the first book through the last, so it remains consistently successful on both a textual and subtextual level. The characters are three-dimensional, as are the repeated symbols and themes.
Clemens is also particularly excellent at ending each of the books on a satisfying, almost cinematic climax. Unlike other, similar fantasy series, none of the adventures feel padded or full of filler, and while, as part of a tightly arced set, none of the books can stand on its own, one never reaches the end of one of the novels dangling on a cliffhanger, feeling like it wasn’t fulfilling in its own right. Each book centers around a smaller quest within the grand overall quest, so each part of the epic ends on some sort of accomplishment.
Clemens has also practically revolutionized the fantasy epic by completely eliminating one of the major traps of the genre, namely the rambling Tolkienesque travel portions of a quest, where Our Roving Heroes spend weeks upon weeks getting from one point to another, and doing very little in the meantime but eating and walking and sleeping, all of which is described in at times excruciating detail. Clemens, on the other hand, has such a huge cast, so many of whom are involved in so many interesting adventures, that whenever one group is about to embark on a journey that might otherwise have involved some Tolkienesque meandering, he simply jumps to a different group for a hundred pages or so, and then perhaps another, finally returning to the first group just as their story begins to get interesting again. Which leaves the reader with a five book fantasy series that has nary a dull or wasted moment, reminiscent of the so-called “Good Parts” version of The Princess Bride that William Goldman claimed to have abridged, from the much longer, more boring, and utterly fictional original by the thoroughly fictional S. Morgenstern.
The only detraction I’d name is Clemens’ overuse of the word, “roiling,” a word which appears so many times in the series that I lost count, but sometimes it even happens more than once on the same page. Other than that, his prose is very strong. Clemens is particularly good at crafting and describing gruesome and original monsters.
In short, the tale of Elena Morinstal and her brother, Joach, among thousands of others, is one of the finest, most entertaining fantasy series I’ve ever read. It is certainly the best plotted. In a word: bewit’ching.