Bloated trilogies and endless, ever-expanding series are a plague on fantasy literature. Even singleton fantasy novels are almost always too long, and trilogies all too often feel like single novels that have been inflated so as to net the author three separate advances. It's a relief, then, to see Fiona McIntosh, who has previously written no fewer than four trilogies of fantasy novels, coming out with a relatively short standalone novel (clocking in at just under 500 pages). To be sure, The Scrivener's Tale revisits the territory of a previous trilogy (which I have not read), but the story is fully self-contained, and although there are traces of the previous installments to be seen in the occasional infodumps about the setting's past, they don't detract from the novel's independence.
The Scrivener's Tale is a chase story focusing on the demon Cyricus. Cyricus has been banished to the Void by Elysius, keeper of the Wild, a magical region of the Morgravian Empire. Trapped for centuries, Cyricus becomes determined to take his revenge on Elysius's successor and on the Wild itself. His plan for doing so is indirect and a little convoluted, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he has no physical form and cannot directly enter Morgravia from the Void. Instead, he must delegate his minion, a female demon named Aphra, to lure a man from another world—the real world—into the world of Morgravia. The man is Gabriel, a former psychologist from Britain who now lives in Paris and has some sort of psychic connection with Morgravia.
The narrative alternates between Gabriel and the native Morgravian Cassien, who has been trained from childhood to be a peerless warrior, strong, fast, perceptive, and intensely disciplined. Just as Gabriel becomes entwined in magical affairs he can neither plan for nor understand, Cassien is called by his mentor Fynch to a new duty. Fynch knows Cyricus is on the move, and has had Cassien trained for years in readiness so that he can protect the Morgravian queen. Gabriel's story and Cassien's advance in parallel until the two strands meet, with the various connections between them being telegraphed far enough in advance to be satisfying but not so far ahead as to be truly surprising.
The comparison that kept springing to mind as I read was Dan Brown, which probably makes The Scrivener's Tale sound worse than it is. Rest assured that The Scrivener's Tale is far better-written than anything by Brown, and shows little evidence of his characteristic writerly flaws (an abundance of epithets, casual unconscious racism, descriptive passages that sound like newspaper reports). However, for all that Dan Brown has become a byword for bad books that are inexplicably popular, the tricks that make his novels readable and widely-read are well-documented: chapters ending in cliffhangers, parallel storylines that weave together in a manner the reader can see coming, a degree of moral ambiguity that's just enough to make things interesting without making them difficult, twists that are just unexpected enough to make the reader feel clever for figuring them out in advance of the characters (while still being obvious enough that the readers certainly will figure them out), and so on. All of these are in evidence here, and they serve the same function for McIntosh as they do for Brown: they keep the story ticking along nicely and make sure that there's always a reason to turn the page.
Indeed, The Scrivener's Tale has a good enough plot to be a decent read, but therein lies the problem: the novel is so driven by its plot that all its other aspects suffer in comparison. The setting is no more than a flat backdrop—or rather, the settings, plural, since McIntosh needs to evoke a real city as well as an imagined world. Despite having all the wealth of reality to draw on, the chapters set in Paris feel awkward and almost anxious. McIntosh drops a flurry of irrelevant details to let us know she's done some research, yet the net result is unconvincing. McIntosh's Paris feels less real than her Morgravia. This is partly because the kinds of details she homes in on are the kind that a tourist would notice, rather than someone who lives there, and partly because her way of introducing those details is distinctly labored, as when she describes the Café de la Paix: "People . . . were braving the cold at outside tables in an effort to capture the high Parisian café society of a bygone era when people drank absinthe and the hotel welcomed future kings and famous artists" (p. 20). As a result, her Paris feels like it is being described based on information from a tourist brochure rather than a real lived acquaintance with the city. (This is not to say that somebody who hasn't lived in a city can't write about it. A skilled writer can convey familiarity with a place whether or not they possess it; McIntosh seems to be trying for this effect, but she does not succeed.)
And yet, to say that Morgravia feels more real than Paris as depicted in this novel is not to say that Morgravia is a particularly distinctive or vivid setting. It is not. It is a standard issue pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European fantasyland, vague in its politics, even vaguer in its economics, with a single major religion that has some of the trappings of Christianity (monasteries and cathedrals) without appearing to have any doctrines to speak of. The one thing that stands out about Morgravia is the oddly blasé attitude some of the characters have to prostitution, which could have been the basis for some really interesting worldbuilding had it been applied consistently and its implications worked through; but it isn't, and they aren't, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this attitude is present so as to ease Cassien's way through the part of the plot that requires him to visit a brothel.
The characters are a mixed bag. Cyricus is a veritable mustache-twirler, evil for evil's sake and not very interesting, though it doesn't matter much since so few pages are devoted to him. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Cassien, who is extraordinarily blank, with more skills than he has personality traits. Sufficiently talented as a warrior that he can beat multiple well-armed opponents by himself, handsome enough that almost every woman he meets wants to sleep with him, and possessed of a mysterious lineage and unique magical talent, he cuts through obstacles in the plot like a hot knife through butter without ever developing much of a personality. The one distinctive trait he could be said to have is a willingness to kill unimportant people or let them die due to his actions. McIntosh tries to mitigate this callousness by having Cassien angst momentarily once the blood on his sword has dried, which is not quite enough. Fortunately Cassien is not the only main character, and Gabriel is a smidgen more developed; although he adapts remarkably quickly to an unfamiliar world, he at least doesn't come across as a blank slate "badass" pre-engineered to the author's specifications. Florentyna, the queen Cassien is commissioned to protect, is probably the best of all the novel's characters: of all of them, she is the most likeable and the most believeable in both her flaws and her virtues, and her dialogue is the most convincingly human-sounding in the book. ("'Stop! Both of you!' Florentyna commanded. 'Kill each other later. I have more important matters than watching you two make each others' hackles rise.'" [p. 335])
Sadly, that's not saying much. At one point Cassien reflects that Florentyna's speech sounds unusually stilted, which made me wonder: how could he tell? A great deal of the dialogue in this novel sounds unnatural and stiff, using the kinds of constructions a person might write but would be very unlikely to say out loud. This sometimes leads to moments of unintentional humor; at least, I'm assuming that
"I'll wear this bruise as a mark of pride. It's testimony to the shriveled stick of a woman you are fast becoming that you would criticize me for crafting one of the most positive events this realm has seen in an age. We're teetering on destruction of the triumvirate but maybe . . . just maybe, a royal wedding, a merger of realms, a whole empire in celebration might drag us all from the brink." (p. 218)
is not meant to make the reader laugh out loud. Who talks like this? More to the point, who talks like this in the height of passion after being slapped in the face by their sister? Perhaps in a more vividly realized setting, with better-drawn and more rounded characters, this kind of elaborate syntax could feel realistic, or be entertaining enough that its lack of realism wouldn't matter. As it is, the moments of clunkiness serve as stumbling blocks in an otherwise fairly smooth narrative.
But for all these complaints, The Scrivener's Tale is still readable, and still broadly competent. There's nothing offensive here, nothing outrageously bad, nothing to make anyone toss the book against the wall. On the other hand, there is also nothing here that is original, or outstanding, or brilliant, or even all that memorable. The Scrivener's Tale is an entertainment for a rainy day; for people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they'll like.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.