Exiles of Arcadia: Legionnaire by James Gawley – Novella Review [Bellarius]
Picking out a self-published work Bellarius sees what Jame’s Gawley’s first outing with Exiles of Arcadia: Legionnaire has to offer.
“An excellently crafted tale of political intrigue, faith and war. Definitely a series to watch for in the future.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
An interesting tale indeed. In a similar manner of The Thousand Names, James Gawley has opted to write this one in a similar style of setting. One which closely resembles a historical period we know, shares distinctive aspects with the powers of that time, but changes certain details, names and adds a touch of fantasy to events. In this case we have Arcadia, closely resembling the Roman Empire, but with a few distinct changes. Many of which soon become clear from the synopsis alone.
Set a decade following the rise of Arcadia’s dictator, overthrowing the old senate, the land is now ruled by an iron fist. The despot Tiberius now governs the empire personally, and all who oppose him are cast out. This was the fate of Primus Sencea, son of a general who led a failed rebellion against Tiberius only to be crushed with little success. In Primus’ sixteenth year on this earth, the general plans for revenge,and his son is all too eager to assist. However, as he is sworn in, Primus witnesses secrets which shake his faith in not only his cause but the gods themselves…
The real promise here comes from the ideas and presentation. More than a few of you who read that brief summary are likely having thoughts about A Song of Fire and Ice and rightfully so. Just as that series had, this features subversions of a few more common fantasy tropes, expectations and a much grimier world than is usually seen for an army fighting a tyrant. What makes it stand out is a much more focused view of a single character, very different setting and general plot. The rebellion itself is a core focus here, with their ongoing conflict central to the plot. Whereas the war ranging across the Westros often felt distant at times, here it is much better integrated. Furthermore the fact Primus is an exile allows the story to more believably present his potential naive about the truth of his life.
The prose is an especially notable strength as there is a distinct artistic flare with a number of depictions which usually manages to work well. Complimenting certain turns and actions with a manner which rightfully conveys the importance of certain actions, something very visible towards the conclusion of the prologue. Furthermore, the books knows exactly where to place certain beats in the plot and how to present major revelations. Unlike Death of Integrity casually dropping a galaxy shattering possibility mid-chapter and barely reflecting upon it, chapter conclusions come with revelations and events which give them the most impact. It’s a trait too many authors I have recently read seem to keep ignoring, as it allows the tale to maintain a momentum and keeps the reader driving forwards.
The characters themselves also frequently stand out from one another. While their personalities are hardly the most outstanding in literature, the vast majority of characters have a distinctive voice to make them stand out. A definite plus given the large ensemble of characters the novella features and the shifting loyalties seen within the legion. It might seem like something basic but it’s a very well handled element which, had it not been, could have single-handedly torpedoed the entire story. Combined with the fact that each one is well handled, their motivations made clear and each one’s personal goals carefully planned out, and you have a good tale of intrigue.
All this said however, Exiles of Arcadia is hardly without its failings.
While this can primarily be attributed to its novella length, many chapters often feel far too short. Each takes up only a handful of pages in total, and while their contents are well handled they would have visibly benefitted from being longer. Not so much for reasons of the plot, but because of how the prose could have been improved. At many points the book keeps resorting to listing dialogue in almost a script format, few actions or descriptions between them. While this can work in short bursts, it occurs a few times too often and almost feels as if sections were compressed to deal with the length.
A further problem also exists within certain descriptions or actions. While there are plenty of well-handled descriptive moments and sequences, there are just as many which either fall flat or come across as uninspired. This is most visible during certain battle scenes or moments of destruction, which lack the punch to really given them significant impact. Often failing to convey the real size or scale of the fights involved, they often feel like nebulous melees with the only focus remaining on a handful of character duels.
Some elements within the universe often feel as if they are relying far too much upon real world comparisons than what is found in Arcadia. The barbaric Woade are an obvious amalgamation of the Germanic and Gaelic tribes which resisted the empire, but there is often not enough to them in the scenes they are presented as a threat. Not enough to justify the racial hatred those in Arcadia display towards those with their blood either.
Also, as is with many books these days, the novella unfortunately does not hold up as a work within itself. Many trailing plot threads are left to continue the story, so it does not feel like an individual chapter of a bigger tale so much as a part of one. Again, perhaps this was justifiable given the novella length, but many series often hold up better when instalments can be singled out and still feature a solid three acts with a conclusion.
Despite these gripes, the first instalment of Exiles of Arcadia proves to be a solid outing for a new saga. Its strengths ultimately outweigh its weaknesses and if you’re after some Rome inspired fantasy tales then you could do far worse than this.