“The Untold Tale” by JM Frey

I’m going to do something a little unusual this week and post reviews of two books in a series one after the other. Partly because I didn’t organise my reviews beyond last week because uni got in the way, and partly because I read these two right next to each other anyway, so it made sense. This review is adapted from my Goodreads review, so it was written before I read the second book.


Publication date: December 8th, 2015

The Untold Tale is a loving evisceration of fantasy literature, written by somebody who has clearly been involved in — and had their heart broken — by the genre and its related fandoms, a few too many times.

It doesn’t take the subtler satirical approach. This isn’t a book where you have to search for the meanings and read between the lines. It’s on-the-nose and blatant about its feminism, about its refusal to accept the standard fantasy narrative with all its attendant misogyny and racism. At times, it may feel a little bit like being bludgeoned by the author’s obvious passion, but there’s still something refreshing about it.

One of the main characters is a fangirl who wrote her dissertation on a series of books and has now found herself inside them. The narrator is a character in those books, but also a person, both someone familiar to her and also something more than that. It’s probably just as well he narrates, rather than letting Pip — Lucy Piper — do it, because it would spoil quite a lot of the surprises, and also she’d rant too much to let the story happen.

This is a book that will speak to anyone who has been totally in love with a book and also disappointed in it — anyone who wants to live in a fantasy world, but doesn’t see themselves represented in it, or knows that they would only ever be the butt of a joke or the target of abuse if they slipped into the pages. Frey writes with love: you only have to look at her pop-culture references to know that she adores fantasy literature and the idea of created worlds. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of visiting our favourite books? Whether that manifested as an obsession with Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart or just a *lot* of cosplay, it’s something that most readers have probably experienced.

(The Inkheart comparison is an apt one in a fair few ways, and avoiding spoilers, I’m imagining Forsyth having some Dustfinger moments in book two. But I haven’t read that yet, so we’ll have to wait and see. Not that the two books are overly similar, because they’re not, but you know. The whole world-inside-a-book thing? It’s hard not to draw parallels.)

But what shapes the story is Frey’s refusal to let any harmful trope go unchallenged. Mainly, her characters face up to sexism, with a dollop of heteronormativity thrown in there for good measure. Pip refuses to be a damsel in distress, but is also human enough to struggle and feel pain. And she doesn’t hold her tongue when she’s hurt or offended. Even the ‘kissing someone forcefully to shut them up / convince them you love them’ trope gets called out for being exactly as problematic as it is.

Needless to say, by the time I got halfway through the book I knew I didn’t have to worry about this falling into the Bury Your Gays trope, because Frey is far too self-aware as a writer to do that.

I did find that the book was a bit long. It didn’t exactly drag, although Forsyth’s somewhat formal narration may have made the actual sentences longer, but I like to be able to race through books in one sitting, and this came close to defeating me. It took me most of the evening, which is like, long, you know?

Here and there, it may also have bordered on indulgent, but it’s hard to say how much that was due to my involvement in fandom and online communities (as well as friendships with people way more involved than I am). For those whose life doesn’t look like this, perhaps it wouldn’t have been, and a character angrily insisting that, “Cosplay isn’t consent,” is merely making a good point. For me, that’s an echo of my entire Twitter feed during major cons, and so it was strange to see it on the page, in a way that here and there pulled me out of the story. You know how sometimes something is just a little bit *too* relatable or realistic for the setting? It was like seeing my social media transplanted into a fantasy world, and something about that sat oddly with me.

Not that I disagreed with anything the characters were saying, and to be honest, if I were making those arguments I’d probably default back to the way I’ve seen them described and phrased online, too, so it’s not inaccurate either. It was just … strange. Particularly given the setting. But again, I think this is partly a subjective response based on my own experiences, and might not have been such a big deal for people who aren’t me.

I guess my only other problem with the book was the amount of sex. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t exactly gratuitous — although Forsyth did seem to have it on his mind a bit too often — and it wasn’t poorly written either. I’m just not particularly interested, and there was quite a lot of it. (There are also some problematic elements revealed later, but don’t worry, they are very much called out and examined in light of that, rather than excused.) One or two scenes might have been enjoyable, but there were just a few too many and I got a little bored, which didn’t help with the length thing.

On the whole, though, this book managed to combine a lot of my passions into novel form, taking the wonderful but sadly flawed genre of high fantasy literature and giving it a twist that allowed for explicit critique of writers’ treatment of female characters and minorities (bonus points: Pip is half Chinese, I believe?) within the narrative itself. I can see this appealing to a lot of my feminist fantasy fan friends (woo, alliteration), and I’ll be sure to pass it on to them with the caveats mentioned above.

I also made sure to get on and read this while book two is still on NetGalley so that I could decide whether I wanted to request that as well, and I did. This book may have been long, but I wasn’t quite finished with these characters by the end of it.

Rating: ****


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