[By Nic Lindh on Friday, 09 April 2004]
The Banned and the Banished is a five-novel fantasy cycle by James Clemens, and consists of Wit’ch Fire, Wit’ch Storm, Wit’ch War, Wit’ch Gate, and Wit’ch Star. No, those aren’t typos; in The Banned and the Banished, a witch is a wit’ch, a dwarf is a dw’arf, an ogre is an og’re, etc. Which gets really old really fast. One can only guess why Clemens decided to pursue that particular strategy, but it doesn’t work. Still, after a while the eye stops seeing the apostrophes, and it stops hurting quite so much, which is a bl’essing.
Fortunately, this apostrophic curse is the only real weakness of the cycle, which apart from that is quite strong. The plot is intricate and essentially revolves around Elena (nope, no apostrophe, but don’t fear, she has one in her last name), who is a wit’ch. In Clemens’s world, there are elementals, who are innately tied in to the magicks of the world itself, and magickers who can manipulate more “regular” magick. From a 30,000 foot view we’re looking at a basic fantasy plot with a dark and malignant evil who wants to take over the world, and our merry band of heroes trying to thwart such attempts. Which is fine; it’s a winning formula.
The Banned and the Banished shines on several levels. Clemens puts a very interesting spin on a Tolkien-esque world, providing a darker view of the war against evil than is usual in fantasy fare, not shying away from the twisted and, well, evil acts a being of utter evil would commit, and the dark magicks that would by necessity be a part of such an undertaking. The characters are uniformly interesting, and have a way of burrowing under the reader’s skin. When you read the cycle, you care about the characters. Clemens also mostly avoids broad brush strokes, turning his characters from black and white into interesting shades of gray. The cycle is full of tormented humanoids going about their business best as they can within their own limitations.
The Banned and the Banished is about as good as fantasy gets, and is well composed and put together. It also manages to avoid most of the dreaded fantasy “walking around a bush for 30 pages” syndrome, with the pacing fast and the action furious (quite often literally so).
The ending, in this reviewer’s opinion, doesn’t quite live up to the build-up, but it does make sense and brings the series to a satisfying close.