Review: Beyond the Pale (The Last Rune #1) by Mark Anthony (1998)

Rating: ★★
Genre: High Fantasy
Categories: Fairies, Royalty/Nobility, Multiple Worlds, Witches/Wizards
Content Warnings: Highlight to read: Reference to previous child sexual abuse. Onscreen attempted rape. Some instances of homophobic dialogue. Some instances of ableist language. Only black character (also only POC) dies.
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Description: ER doctor Grace Beckett and small-town saloon owner Travis Wilder are both normal citizens of Colorado. They don’t know each other, and they’ve never dealt with magic…at least, that they acknowledge. But when evil attacks them in their separate towns, they find themselves transported to the fantastical world of Eldh, where they must make new, strange companions and gain powers that will help them save their new world.

Impression: There were individual parts of this book that I liked quite a bit. For example, Grace needing to learn how to weave before she could learn magic was a very evocative way of introducing how the magic of witchcraft worked. Falken singing in front of the council of kings also captured me with its image. Travis’s reveal of his tragic past was genuinely moving; I actually got teary. Having queer and disabled characters casually present as part of the cast was meaningful. And some of the secondary characters were genuinely charming—initially just Aryn, but both Durge and Beltan genuinely grew on me. In short, there were a lot of sparks of potential and things I wanted to see more of.

However, there was a lot that I found wanting in this book as well, and I found it very hard to get through. The pacing was bad, many scenes were too derivative of previous works of fantasy, the foreshadowing was so unsubtle that that twists rarely worked as twists, and the narrative was purple to the point of… well, “Her breasts were two ripe fruits in the pearled basket of her bodice.” Very few characters were allowed to be people rather than plot devices (frequently including our protagonists), and while I was glad there was less rape than in a lot of epic fantasy, it was definitely still there. There’s a certain amount that I’m willing to acknowledge as unpleasantly just super common as part of the set piece of high fantasy especially in the 80s and 90s, and it didn’t really cross that line, but it was still tiresome.

There were extremely large stretches (to the tune of 200 pages) where essentially nothing important happened; you could probably cut out most of the middle of the book with minor revisions and not really lose much actual content. Contributing to this feeling was the problem with characters just being archetypes; both Falken and Melia were intended to be Mysterious by the narrative, which meant that they would frequently seem to realize something and then leave Travis and the reader out of their discussions entirely while we got to read about… Travis being sulky that they were whispering together. Key exciting moments would often end with everyone deciding “Let’s talk about this tomorrow”, and then the conversation would be offscreened and explained briefly in narrative only.

There was a certain derivativeness, as well. It was easy to see the inspiration especially of Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Shakespeare, but also Disney’s Aladdin, the Darwath trilogy, the Belgariad, and even Sailor Moon. Now, I believe each author will handle a concept differently, and concepts don’t ‘belong’ to anyone as long as scenes aren’t lifted wholesale. But this book just barely reskinned some things before dropping them into its own narrative. For example, Travis holding the Magic Item That The Evil Overlord Wanted because it made him want to take it out, which caused wraiths to attack his group where they were camped in the shadow of an old ruin on a hill. For another example, Puck’s infamous closing monologue from the Midsummer Night’s Dream is given by fairy actors, rephrased but with the same content. It’s nothing that I’d call plagiarism, but as someone who’s read those works, it was distracting, and it happened enough that it undercut its original content—during some of the more stand-out scenes, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was referencing a story I wasn’t familiar with.

There was also a weird royalist sentiment throughout—repeatedly, nobility is described as something you can tell by just looking at someone… to the point that the entirety of Grace’s plot hinges on the fact that she is assumed to be royalty from their own world by literal kings and queens of Eldh, because she’s just got that Air Of Nobility to her, despite the fact that nobody has ever heard of her or where she claims to be from. (The combination of this, the archetypes, and the derivativeness honestly makes me pretty sure of twists that’ll happen in later books, in fact — surely Falken is too much of an Aragorn-like figure to not be the secret heir to the kingdom that fell a thousand years earlier?)

I originally picked this book up because, as a queer fantasy reader who was a teen in the 90s, the presence of LGBT+ characters in mainstream fantasy was extremely helpful to me, and I’m always willing to find out about books I hadn’t heard of and try them out now. I’m given to understand that a m/m romance (I believe with one gay character and one bi character) happens later on in this six book series. The on-page LGBT+ content in this book was: 1. The seductress sorceress archetype, who enacted the bad stereotype of being bisexual-but-only-so-they-can-seduce-men-together and 2. Two separate male characters both who are in a masculine virility cult which has rumors that its members sleep with boys, both of whom are described by these rumors in derisive/insulting ways. For the second of these male characters it’s more confirmed that yes, he is gay (and I’m 99% sure he is going to be part of the romance later) and, honestly, he’s a decent character who is one of the well-written secondaries and I’m glad he exists on-page, but given that he’s occasionally a POV character, and that we have spent at this point 600 pages with his close friends who are also POV characters, I do wish we could have had at least this one reveal that was through their casual or friendly narrative, rather than through the insults of a villain.

By the end, I admit I was curious about what would happen later in the series, and I would be interested to see those two characters develop a relationship. I’d like to see more of Grace, too, and her friendship with Aryn. But all in all, weighing the parts I liked and the parts I didn’t, I don’t think I’m likely to read further.

Edit (spoilers, highlight to read): I read some other reviews (which confirmed my belief some of the stand-out scenes were also derivative, just of series I wasn’t as familiar with) and some other plot information online that has cemented my desire not to read further. Grace, it turns out, is nobility (a princess sent away from her own world and, I guess, through time), so that whole weird royalist was some kind of… set up for that. But more of a deal breaker, apparently later in the series, the gay character and Travis’s female love interest are magically coerced into sleeping with each other by being made to believe the other’s Travis. I’m definitely tapping out of this one.

Related Reviews: The Merro Tree by Katie Waitman

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