After losing his family in a tragic accident, Gabriel, psychologist-turned-writer, abandons his life to hide amongst the dusty bookshops and chatty cafes of Paris. He is befriended by a strange doctor named Reynard who has an even stranger companion, the supposedly delusional Angelina. She is as beautiful as she is entrancing, and he feels compelled to help her. At first he believes she’s merely frightened of Reynard, and his deepening attraction pulls him evermore under her manipulative sway. She tells him she is not of this world, and shows him visions of the cathedral he has dreamt of all his life to prove her case. If he wants to help her, he must kill her, absorb her spirit, and travel to the world from whence she came: Morgravia.
Deep in the forests of Morgravia, Cassian has spent his life training for battle. He has endured tortures beyond imagination at the hands of his Brothers, monks of the order of the Brotherhood, a group who exist in semi-secrecy to protect the Crown. Cass is summoned from the Great Forest by a quiet man named Fynch who, like everyone else in this book, is far more than he appears. He sends Cassian out on a journey to save the Empress and her empire from an ancient evil who revels in chaos and revenge. Along the way he acquires Hamelyn, a young lad who sees much and understands even more, and whose companionship may be more planned than coincidental.
Empress Florentyna has her own personal problems to deal with. Her spoiled, selfish sister threatens the stability of her reign, her spiteful step-mother hates her and has turned her sister against her, kind King Tamas of Cipres is about to wed a woman who doesn’t deserve him, and now some crazy old coot named Fynch has shown up at her palace telling tales of magic and demons and people from another world. Her people look at magic with suspicion. The more they cling to religion, the more fearful they become of anything inexplicable. When Cassian turns up in a very lucky moment—and Gabriel in a very unlucky one—the three groups are thrust together in a complicated plot to save the world.
Gabriel’s story bookends the tale—and inspires the title of The Scrivener’s Tale—but it isn’t really about him. Or, more accurately, not just about him. Gabe is the catalyst for the events that take place, but he doesn’t hold up the bulk of the narrative. That is given over to Cassian (and Ham) and Empress Florentyna (and King Tamas). Paris actually has very little to do with the story at all, and within a few chapters everyone is wandering around Morgravia getting into varying degrees of trouble. The fact that the official description of the book makes it sounds like the story straddles the two worlds isn’t McIntosh’s fault, but it also means I was looking forward to reviewing one type of book and got something entirely different. Not unpleasant, just unexpected.
The characters are entertaining, irritating, personable, curious, enchanting, frightening, all the things a well-created character should be. Problem is they are all pretty much stock characters. The Big Bad is psychotic in exactly the same way every Big Bad is in modern fiction. The assassin-warrior is absolutely perfect at fighting—which makes it difficult to build tension if you know he’s always going to win. The boy is an old soul and the kind of kid who is exceptionally un-kid-like. The Empress is tough as nails, no nonsense, and if she wore glasses she’d take them off and shake out her hair in front of the captain of the football team and a suddenly he’d think she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Her sister, Darcelle, is basically Regina from Mean Girls. The characters even react to each other in fairly predictable ways. (If you don’t see the final plot twists coming from a mile away, you haven’t been paying attention.) Gabe is the only one who doesn’t fit a mold, but he has such little presence in the book that it’s hard to get to know him. His actions are the important part of the story, not his personality or opinions and thus they get the short shrift. I don’t hate that McIntosh relied on trope personalities, because if they didn’t get the job done they wouldn’t be so overused. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed.
Scrivener is set in the future of the world McIntosh established in her Quickening trilogy. However, this book is intended as a standalone. It’s easy enough to come in without any previous experience with Morgravia, Briavel, The Razors, or The Wild. As a person who hasn’t yet read her previous fantasy series, I can say with certainty McIntosh explains past events very thoroughly. Very. Thoroughly. A little too thoroughly, perhaps. There’s a lot of talking. A lot. At practically every scene two or more characters stand around and discuss everything that has just happened, recall events that took place several generations prior, and theorize as to how both circumstances might affect future outcomes. The group makes a decision, they act on that decision, and inevitably the result is exactly what was speculated. Then the group gets together again and rinse and repeat. Often times, someone who wasn’t present at the last committee meeting will ask for the minutes, in which case another person will re-explain everything that was just explained 10 pages ago.
Herein lies my second issue with the book. I can’t decide if the plot was rushed because McIntosh over explained everything, or if the fault lies in the book being squashed into a standalone rather than a two or three book series. I suspect it is the latter. With more room to breathe, I think she would have relied less on endless explication because she’d have the space to set up bigger action sequences. Even at 528 pages the story feels hasty, because too much time is devoted to explaining every nuance. And she has to. The story is complex and complicated, to the point where it jumps the shark, but I’m not sure how she could have simplified it without stretching it into multiple books.
These two faults don’t “ruin” The Scrivener’s Tale, but they do prevent me from giving it an A grade. Once I got going with the book, it really rolled along. If you can get through the constant conversations and stop fretting over the overly complicated plot, Scrivener is pretty entertaining. The story moves along at a jaunty pace, the action is descriptive and imaginative, and the book itself is well-written. Not every book can be perfect, and The Scrivener’s Tale makes a solid case for good enough. It hits all the marks, even if they’re marks hit by everyone else. Even though I could see where the story was headed early in the game, the plot is engaging enough to make it hard to put down. I spent more than a few nights staying up past my bedtime reading just one more chapter... The book is quite enjoyable and worth a read.
The Scrivener's Tale is out on March 26 from Harper Voyager.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.