A fantasy tale about amnesia, but not alcohol induced.
Mature Content Rating: PG-13 (mild sexual content and language)
Have you ever had too much to drink? Have you ever woken up with an awful headache, maybe wearing less clothes than would be your preference, or in a strange place? How did you get there? Floating in this haze, you reach for the nearest pain-killers or strong cup of coffee. Maybe you have woken up half-in half-out a trash can with no memory of how you got there. This is the case with the man we are introduced to in Health:Exile. From this point on, we are led through the streets of New York by this homeless man with amnesia. Luckily, when we drink too much, and maybe don’t remember how got to the bed, floor, or back alley that we wake up in, this is a brief and quickly explained condition. Not so for the protagonist of Hearth:Exile.
Hearth:Exile is nothing like I expected it would be. I don’t truly know what I was expecting, but when a book is labelled “fantasy” there is a certain understanding of what that book might contain. You will find none of that in Health:Exile. The story plays out more like Indiana Jones as an orphan kid with amnesia minus the action. A strange and refreshing mix to be sure.
The biggest draw for this book is that the protagonist (revealed to be Br… something) had no idea who he is or where he came from. The reader gets to learn about Br as he learns about himself. This gives a wonderfully mysterious feel to the story, the world, and provides a sense of drive to keep reading. Who is this Br guy and how did he end up in a trash can?
Though the reader doesn’t know what is going on (because the characters don’t) little snippets of brilliant third-person-omniscient use provide the reader with just enough external hints to push on. Reading about a homeless man combing his hair can only hold reader interest to a point. Eventually a strange bird with red eyes has to swoop in and let the reader know that there really is a story here. This heightens the suspense and keeps things rolling, even through the slow beginning.
M. R. Jenks gives the reader a brilliant understanding of the characters in Hearth:Exile. Jenks slides easily between third-person limited and omniscient points of view in a way I have never seen done well… until now. Internal monologue runs rampant never leaving the reader in the dark about character motivation. Specific character back-stories are woven right into the middle of everything, making good use of the “external narrator” role that Jenks implements through his unique writing style.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. The biggest problem I faced was that I just wasn’t drawn in by M. R. Jenks’ writing style. Long sections of Hearth:Exile are told in a passive voice, which makes it read like an unengaging biography instead of the intriguing and suspenseful fantasy story that it is. The book had a lot of potential, but I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or the characters because of the hands-off word choice implementation. When reading, I want to be sucked into the pages so intensely that when I come up to breathe, my mind is swimming in a haze of the reality I live in, still invested in the fantasy of ink and paper. There is almost as much passive voice as there is active voice, which is a surprisingly large amount. This was the biggest downfall of Health:Exile, by far.
Along the way, Br meets an orphan girl. She is the most intriguing character in the whole book. I loved her back story, and how she reacted to the world around her because of it. The problem was that she didn’t always act this way. Sometimes she was the street-hardened brat, and like flicking a switch, she turned into a happy-go-lucky little girl living life to its fullest. Instead of showing two sides of a complex character, the implementation came across as jarring and unbelievable.
If the best thing about this book is that Br doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from, then naturally the book begins to go downhill once he figures out the mystery that is him. The magic I experienced in the first couple chapters was lost as Br learned about himself. It felt like he was lifting up stone in the desert looking for water, but there was nothing but sand. Sadly, as the stones are lifted, Br is perfectly happy with knowing just enough about himself to make him realise he is different, but lacks the motivation to figure out more.
Hearth:Exile has no “antagonist.” True, there is some big bad guy that is trying to take over the world, or destroy the world, or something like that, but he barely makes an appearance. Subtle hints are sprinkled throughout, but he never really effects the lives of the characters in any real way, except for in the classic “final encounter.” I felt like the book would have been just as strong, or maybe even stronger, without this slapped together antagonist. It was almost like as Br is gallivanting about, figuring out who he is, M. R. Jenks decided “this book needs an antagonist,” and thus he was born. I saw the potential for this antagonist to effect the story in the long-run, but there was not enough in this book to make him feel real or relevant in any way. Br and friends have a strange sense of urgency that “something is afoot.” Unfortunately, that is a very thin thread to stand on as the driving force for an antagonist.
“I have a feeling that there is an evil force. I think it wants to destroy the world. We had better hurry up and figure out who we are so that we can stop this world-destroying monster.”
It almost feels like someone running around yelling, “the sky is falling!” but instead they are yelling, “evil is afoot” without any real evidence of it.
Does Br figure out who he is? In a sense. Is the “evil” dealt with… not really. Is anything dealt with?… not really. The ending of Health:Exile falls flat. There is a lot of build up to the conclusion, and when it comes, the book just ends saying, “thanks for all the fish.” It’s like a story about some crazy scientist trying to figure out how to make a teleportation device. He gets it working, steps through, evil is on his tail, and then… The End.
Health:Exile had a lot of potential. A man trying to figure out who he is. A fantasy world, but not like you would expect. The characters are well motivated and engage in the story. Sadly, the ending leaves too many question marks, and rampant use of passive voice makes it read more like a biography than fantasy literature. The story is intriguing, but the story telling is unflavourful.
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