Legends of the Exiles by Jesse Teller

Jesse Teller’s Legends of the Exiles consists of four intertwining novellas that occur during the same decade, give or take a few years. Each novella focuses on a different female “legend” who is at some point driven from her homeland and forced to adapt to new people and a new environment. Although we might know how some situations play out in advance, the wondrous part is how well they’re woven together to provide the reader with fresh perspective and context. Sometimes we’ll hear one side of a conversation and come away feeling anger towards the opposing party. Then two novellas later, we experience the same conversation from the other side, and the delicate complexities of human perspectives are brought into focus.

Even though it’s fantasy, and we’re talking about characters that kill and ride bears at the ripe old age of six, there’s a certain level of believability that’s needs to be maintained while working within the rules of the story. I’m not sure why it’s easier for me to buy into gargoyle protectors and haunted nightmare gods, but the thought of tiny children acting with more physical strength, maturity, and wisdom than their adult counterparts is something that was at times difficult to accept. One seven-year-old was tasked with choosing a husband and does so with a personal sacrifice to help the greater good. Another seven-year-old decides to sacrifice her life and soul to an eternity of turmoil because of a promise made in friendship.

The first novella, Dreaded Desires, was my least favorite of the four. Early on, new people and names are introduced nearly every page with no preamble. We know nothing about them or how large a role they’ll play, so it was tough to keep track of them all early in the story. This fixed itself over time as characters are re-used in different perspectives, but I wondered if there was a better way to handle this. Also, Helena was a difficult character to root for. She is mean and immature, impulsive and irrational, and displays knee-jerk reactions to any physical or emotional attack. Once she figures out that she’s in love with someone (after treating him like garbage for most of her life), she aims to get her way through any selfish means necessary. Looking back, I see why Helena’s story is important to the overall narrative, but I would hardly classify Helena as a titular Legend.

The Princess Prophet wildly deviated from the rest of the novella in a sense that it leans heavily on high fantasy: gods in the sky, giant earth creatures, an emerald the size of a house, centaurs battling demons, and promises of sacrifices to be made. Jocelyn is five when we first meet her as she is haunted by nightmares. She eventually decides to leave her kingdom to follow the teachings of someone who she thinks can help her. Jocelyn befriends another girl like herself, but it cursed to ruin most of the lives around her because of some careless words spoken early in her training. She is working toward choosing a husband because her baby was prophesized to be a savior, but after her life of sadness ended we still learned nothing about who the savior is and what this person will do. This story felt incomplete and frustrating, as Jocelyn often acted with a world-weary wisdom and strategic planning that most adults never achieve.

Dead Girl is when this book really started to shine. It is the story of Ellen, a survivor of child rape, who sequesters herself from society, creates her own language, and leans on writing so as not to act on her suicidal thoughts. This is a heartbreaking story, and sadly a deeply personal one for the author. Once Ellen befriends a young, feral child, their friendship helps restore some of Ellen’s zest for life, yet her turmoil is always just beneath the surface of her thoughts. Rape makes an appearance in one form or another in all four novellas, whether it be spoken of in passing, an implication or threat of it, or the act itself.  In a story that focuses on four women, mentioning rape in all of them was something I didn’t think totally necessary. Perhaps in the world that Teller has created, the threat is real and constant and plays a big role in this society. Still, I think it would have been just as impactful, if not more so, that this subject matter was limited to telling Ellen’s story, while the other novellas focused on different adversities the other women faced. That being said, this novella was beautifully handled, yet heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful.

The final novella, Daughter of Beasts, was the most entertaining of the four. Rachel, who we were introduced to as the feral child who befriended Ellen, is the daughter of two clan leaders. She had been living with her mother in a female-centric society where she learned how to become a fierce warrior and archer. She has shot 300 arrows per day, every single day from the ages of 3 to 5. I currently have a three-year-old and a five-year-old daughter, and the thought of either of them, or anyone else their age committing to that level of discipline was hard for me to accept. But Rachel isn’t entirely human, so the nature of children in this world is up for interpretation. Rachel is forced to leave her mother’s world and enter her father’s world at a young age. He is a clan leader, a powerful man, but Rachel doesn’t find any man trustworthy after being raised by her mother’s society. We follow Rachel’s journey over the years – one particular chapter, when she brings a date home to her brothers’ chagrin, is hysterical – and the story ties up all four novellas into a satisfying ending. Rachel has many battles to fight: physical, emotional, and spiritual, and her fierce loyalty to her beliefs set her apart.

Reviewing books is a completely subjective system that changes from story to story. I have no set agenda or a list of criteria to evaluate; most of the time I have a pretty good sense of what score I’m going to give a book by the time I reach its conclusion. Choosing a score for this book was especially difficult as there were content decisions that didn't sit well with me, but the last two novellas elevated the book as a whole. No matter where I landed, scores are hardly a fair representation of how to judge if this book is worth reading. This one absolutely is. Teller continues to impress me with another visit to Perilisc, and he seems to have dozens of books planned for decades to come. (Really, he does.) If you’re willing to give his books a shot, know that there’s a bit of a learning curve, but if you put in the time you will be handsomely rewarded.

8/10 An imaginative collection of four novellas focusing on the strength of women in a male-centric society.

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