Scribes by James Wolanyk
Review by Michael Evan
Fantasy as a genre is polarizing among true literature connoisseurs. Despite many novels and series spanning lengthy epic sized tomes, authors are often criticized for being trite , or too detached or disengaged from the real world. I happen to love the genre, although I have agreed with the critics on many occasions as well. I have read some excellent series especially over the last couple of years. Those by RJ Barker and Josiah Bancroft come to mind.
James Wolanyk’s Scribes, the first in a 3 book series entitled “The Scribe Cycle” is a worthy addition to a small list of titles that I can refer to as highly literary fantasy. This novel about a young girl with the gift of granting invulnerability by carving runes on those around her, and her struggles to find light after tragedy, and accept the darkness that comes along with being a commodity is a tragic, and beautiful debut that promises even higher stakes as subsequent novels progress.
Unlike many novels that bombard us with exposition, Wolanyk prefers to challenge us by dropping us in to a tense situation for Anna, the book’s main protagonist from the get go. Much like Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels (although far more focused) we are introduced to different races, and species from far off lands, and we are forced to imagine them in our own way. He does an excellent job of keeping characters gray and there are twists and turns around each corner as motives change, friends become enemies, and Anna’s gift brings her a powerful new existence.
James Wolanyk writes lyrical abstract prose. He tells a linear story , but much like David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie, and even James Joyce, he chooses to tell it with an almost poetic grace. Because of this, it can at times feel complex, and even strange. The claustrophobic feeling of a nightmare can all at once become a beautifully depicted dream and you will find yourself wanting to read individual passages over again to recapture the wonderful prose.
Scribes just might be the most Grimdark Novel I’ve ever read, and I like to think I’ve read a lot of Grimdark. In its most brutal sections It is unrelenting in it’s shocking and powerful use of graphic cinematic violence. I’d go so far as to confidently state that a few scenes in this book make “The Red Wedding” seem like a child’s birthday party by comparison. It is also often a truly sad novel, it’s tone rarely shifting from the morose, but it does offer an underlying theme of personal growth, perseverance, and finding inner power. Bora, Anna’s spiritual master in an Obi Wan sense is a wonderful character, and Anna truly changes by the end of the book in to a powerful, almost Godlike being.
James Wolanyk’s work should find its place among not only lovers of dark Fantasy, but also those that love challenging and beautiful prose and are looking for something that digs deeper in to the wonder of the human spirit.