A Hero's Journey
J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale Reviewed

The Untold Tale, by J.M. FreyRecently, I had the pleasure of reading J.M Frey's The Untold Tale. Now, full disclosure here, J.M. and I are friends and fellow writers, so I have my biases, and you should take what I say with the proper grain of salt. However, this won't stop me from saying why I think people should read J.M.'s work, and why I think you might enjoy it.

I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. There are twists here that would be better if encountered unspoiled, but if you're totally against spoilers, tread carefully beyond this paragraph.

The Untold Tale follows middle-aged (at 27) Forsyth Turn, who though he is a decent lord of his estate, and is in service to his king as the mysterious spymaster known as Shadow Hand, very much lives in the shadow of his older brother, metaphorically played by Conan the Barbarian.

Forsyth's older brother, Kintyre, is the quintessential grunting hero, endowed with an enchanted blade called (ahem) "Foesmiter" who hacks away at his problems and has won accolades from all but the fantasy world's villains. Forsyth understandably resents this, but is too kind-hearted to do much about it. He's accepted his lot as a supporting character, cleaning up his brother's messes, managing the estate, and doing the day-to-day jobs that really should be his brother's to do.

Forsyth's life changes when his men bring him a female prisoner they've liberated from the evil Viceroy's (the world's Big Bad) clutches. As he nurses the brutally tortured woman back to health, mysteries multiply. The woman's name is Lucy Piper, and she knows everything there is to know about Forsythe, Kintyre, their world and everything in it. She knows exactly why Forsyth's life is as it is, and has choice words about the world's blatant misogyny. Oh, and she's a doctor, with a Ph.D in literature, specializing in fantasy works, particularly the works of Elgar Reed and his Tales of Kintyre Turn books.

In short, she's a Reader (emphasis on the capital R), and a fan (albeit one who is well aware of the book series' many flaws, not to mention the tropes of fantasy in general), and that is why the evil Viceroy magically dragged her into Forsyth's world. Someone who would know the intentions of The Writer that well must be able to give him an edge against his hated adversary, Kintyre.

You need to know, going into this, that The Untold Tale is meta-fiction, and quite adult. Like Lucy Piper, J.M. Frey is happy to explore and question the tenets of fantasy, poking fun at the little tropes, and giving the lazy ones the thrashing they so richly deserve. One of these in particular is shocking for how it is presented, and should shake many of our assumptions about how we write fantasy and how we read it.

At the same time, J.M. Frey never lets go of the obvious love she has for fantasy, and you see that in her best drawn characters. A risk with meta-fiction is that the fictional world, when presented as fiction, becomes disposable. By rights, Lucy is the only "real" character in the novel and the only one the readers seem likely to care about. However, by telling the story strictly in the first person from Forsyth's point of view, we are grounded in the meta-world through a very real and sympathetic character -- a man whose questioning of his own reality meshes so well with his long questions over his own self-worth. As Forsyth journeys from being a supporting character into a hero in his own right, the meta-world's stakes become real, and his growth something the reader cares fiercely about.

It's an excellent novel. I did find the denoument went on a little too long, but the ending is satisfying. If you love meta-fiction, or love fantasy but are willing to have the genre's little darlings poked at with a stick, you will find J.M. Frey's The Untold Tale very satisfying, and an excellent addition to your library. Though the novel reads well as a stand-alone, I'll be interested in seeing where she takes these characters in the next two books.

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