Ransom Reviews

Ransom Stephens

The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey

Cover art of The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey

When I started writing Ransom Reviews, I knew that there would be requests. Since I ask people for blurbs, reviews, pats on the head, and hoppy ale, it seemed lame and smug and annoying to have a policy of “no.”

J.M. Frey sent me a message asking me to review one of her books. Since we have the same agent, I especially hoped that I’d like it. She offered a free copy, but I paid full retail, agreed to put it in my “pile of good intentions,” and made pre-excuses involving the height of said pile. The idea is that if I don’t like the book then I won’t review it and can soften the blow by lying: “It’s in the pile, but it’s a big pile, one of these daze!”

The Untold Tale* is a special book, more than a meta-fantasy, it fulfills the promise of literature by plunging us into a world where we experience things that affect our compassion and empathy. Plus, in a totally different vein, I found the experience intimate. I’ve never met JM in real life (and if I did, it was in passing and don’t remember), but this work brought a feeling of telepathy, as if I really was in her head. I came away with the desire to sit in a bar with JM Frey and drink to excess — especially at a “con” where she feels quite comfortable and I feel more out of place than anywhere on earth. Or maybe it’s her protagonist I’d like to knock a few back with, whatever.

We’re deposited in the mind of a reluctant hero clouded by his self-doubt

JM’s choice of the the first person point of view (PoV) is fascinating and risky because it is not the protagonist’s PoV. It’s the right choice because, for this book to work, we need to see the heroine from outside her own head. It would have been easier to write in the third person, but it wouldn’t have been better. Often it is the constraints that beget the art, and this is such a case.

Notice the delightful duality we get from Forsyth’s PoV:

“Not quite. Go back to sleep,” I say soothingly. “I’ll, uh, I’ll come back with some breakfast and a bath for you later, okay?” Now that most of her wounds have closed, she can be immersed, and I think she will enjoy the treat.

“Mm, yeah, okay,” she says, and turns her face the other way on her pillow, burrowing down into the comfort and warmth of the blankets. She inhales and reaches out, hooking the pillow I just abandoned and pulling it against her face.

We feel his desires but also see Pip’s (the heroine’s) straightforward openness that he cannot see even though were in his PoV.

The hard part of writing in the first person is conveying those aspects of the world to which the PoV character is oblivious. I managed this problem in Too Rich to Die* in two ways: First, by making Simon so oblivious to cultural mores that you’re ready to see things that he misses, and second, by cheating — I switched to third person when I needed other eyes on a scene. JM leans into the PoV character and sometimes oversells his obliviousness, but better to overdo it than let it be unclear.

Everything is Political

The Untold Tale reminded me of Sheri Tepper*, one of my favorite SFF (science fiction and fantasy) writers, in its approach to the feminist Cause. Both authors impose injustices on us. Tepper lets us suffer and simmer whereas Frey gets right in our face in a way that I found appealing in its authenticity:

… buy me a coffee as a way to get permission from me to sit down and flirt with me. If I say no, I don’t want a cup of coffee, and you insist on getting me one anyway, and make me uncomfortable enough that I feel guilty and have to drink it, then . . . what else are you not going to accept no as an answer to? You’ve proven to me once that you don’t listen to me, so if you want a kiss and I say no, then what? If you want sex and I say no, what happens then?”

Just over halfway through, I almost got whiplash: plot twist hall of fame, less said here the better.

Reading time vs story time

I’m fascinated by the way time passes in novels — the relationship between how much time it takes me to read a passage compared to how much has passed in the story. Scenes rarely pass more than a few minutes per page of text, but exposition can drop a century in a sentence.

Watch how JM passes weeks in two paragraphs by implying time’s passage through activities whose duration we understand:

When Pip and I are together, Pip … insists on being talked through everything the Shadow’s Men have deciphered about her capture. She cannot read the alphabet of Hain, and so I must read each notation and squiggle to her, which she copies into a small leather-bound book of her own with chicken-scratch markings that I, in turn, cannot read myself. I am powerfully fascinated by the way she constructs her written language. Knowledge is the highest aphrodisiac for me, and to be offered an entire method of recording thoughts that sounds like my language but is not written the same is wondrous. Especially since I will be able to use it as a code for myself; no one else will know this method, so my deepest secrets and most important notes will remain safe.

Eventually, when I have read every piece of the relevant correspondence to Pip, when she has pulled down every single book I own and demanded I read chapters to her based on the titles in the codex, when several weeks have passed and her little notation book must be nigh stuffed with words that I am only now learning to read easily, she sits back in my study with a glass of unwatered wine rolling between her hands and a smile playing over her lips. She is leaning fully back, reveling in the ability to do so. The ivy is completely healed and only occasionally does Pip wince when one of the still-tight scars pulls uncomfortably.

We’re not dragged into a scene of people reading to each other, which would be interminably boring, and we’re also prevented the agony of a collage of boring activities. A sentence that says “several weeks passed” would have worked, but JM uses the opportunity to work in a some plot points: (1) the feel of time passing, (2) that Pip has learned a lot about her situation, and (3) that sufficient time has passed that Pip’s injuries have mostly healed — which was the real point of the two paragraphs in the first place. Nice work.

Narrative trust

When you read The Untold Tale, pay attention to your own responses as little inconsistencies percolate into your mind. JM manages to convey her narrative authority in a way that keeps us from thinking that the inconsistencies are a mistake. She makes it look easy, but if you’ve tried it, you know that it isn’t!

My favorite bit

Finally, my favorite thing (it’s shallow, welcome to my mind) was how JM used the word “fuck.” The heroine throws as many f-bombs in this book as I do in three hours at a Raider game. JM manages to turn it into an inside joke between Forsyth, the PoV character, Pip, the heroine, and us, the readers. I love that! (plus, I did it in The God Patent*. It’s fun, try it.

< Frammice all the way down >

*Links in this article marked with an asterisk are “affiliate links” which means that I get a small commission from Amazon if you choose to buy the book from them (it doesn’t affect the price you pay). I do not consider the links an endorsement of Amazon — shop according to your principles! That said, I recognize irony when I implement it, but without the tiny extra income generated by affiliate links these reviews would not be produced because, when I dove into this racket that we call being a novelist, I vowed that I would never write for free.

And finally, if you’d like to receive my famous** Ransom’s Notes, sign up here (**they’re not really famous).

Ransom Stephens

Written by

Bestselling author of thought-provoking suspense novels. He likes hoppy ale, loud music, and every genre of fiction.

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