Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith
J.M. Frey’s first book in The Accidential Turn series, The Untold Tale, is revolutionary. It’s incredibly self-aware and the fact that it’s a fantasy story makes that even more remarkable. Fans of the fantasy genre find much to delight in throughout the novel, which follows the adventures of Lucy Piper, a.k.a. Pip, a “Reader” from our world who gets pulled into the realm of her favourite fantasy series, The Tales of Kintyre Turn. A series on which she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation. A serious that embodies all the misogynistic undertones from historical and conventional fantasy stories that, despite her love for the series itself, Pip despises.
In Frey’s book, the worlds of fantasy novels are real–they exist alongside our world in a multi-dimensional approach to reality that sees the authors of our world as (for all intents and purposes) the all-knowing creators, referred to as capitalized ‘Authors’. While they have been birthed by a pen from our world, they don’t cease to exist when their main stories end, as we see in The Untold Tale. The Author of The Tales of Kintyre Turn is Elgar Reed–we hear about him as a writer through Pip’s knowledge of the books before actually being introduced to the character.
Frey’s sequel novel, The Forgotten Tale, continues to extrapolate on this multi-dimensional universe with its key conflict: a Dealmaker spirit is on the hunt for her missing son, searching through all of the fantasy realms (i.e. The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, Narnia) and destroying them when they turn up empty.
Now, it gets a little complicated if you haven’t read The Untold Tale, so I’m going to give an overview of the first novel before digging in to the second. That way, if you want to avoid spoilers, you can stop before I get to The Forgotten Tale.
The Untold Tale
Told through the eyes of Forsyth Turn, brother to Kintyre Turn, this book sees Pip getting pulled into their kingdom and tortured under the hands of the Viceroy, a villainous sorcerer who summons Pip to learn about (and destroy) their world’s Author. As a Reader, Pip has an angel-like status in the Turn world–she knows everything about the main characters, especially as someone who has studied the books in this capacity. In the beginning of the book, Pip is rescued by Forsyth Turn’s men and brought to his manor. There, the two plot a quest to send Pip back to her world, falling in love along the way despite a dark reality Pip is unable to reveal.
The most important themes throughout the novel are feminism and fantasy tropes. Frey wholeheartedly supports the former and deconstructs the latter (often at the same time). Pip is not your usual damsel in distress. She’s educated, feisty, stubborn, and willful. Faced with her favourite fantasy world and being confronted with the gender stereotypes, Pip simultaneously has to deal with being disenchanted with a world she once loved while pursuing a quest to get back home, all while trying to handle a growing connection with Forsyth that she isn’t sure is real.
One of the main struggles in the book is Pip having to deal with the after effects of being held hostage and tortured by the Viceroy and his sidekick, Bootstrap. The realism in Frey’s approach to this issue is one of the things that make the novel so revolutionary. Pip doesn’t get over it quickly. In fact, she never gets over it. For someone so powerful in her own right, losing control of her body and being unable to make her own decisions is an earth-shattering experience for Pip. For a fantasy novel, Frey’s treatment of PTSD through the eyes of Pip is unique and refreshing–we see characters in fantasy novels endure hardships all the time, but when do we see the realistic after effects? When do characters who have lost their agency mentally struggle with the trauma throughout the entirety of the book, rather than simply turning their anger towards a revenge quest?
It’s a compelling read. The Untold Tale unpacks conventional fantasy tropes and stares them right in the face. It calls out everything that’s ridiculous or sexist in traditional fantasy novels. And it features an irresistible and steamy romance that’ll renderyou unable to put the book down. I blew through the novel in a couple of days, leaving myself in eager anticipation of the sequel.
*Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers for The Untold Tale*
The Forgotten Tale
After the events of the first novel, we re-enter the story with Pip and Forsyth living in our world, toddler daughter in tow. Forsyth, the Lordling of Turn Hall and Lysse Chipping, has had to learn the ways of our world from scratch, but luckily his experiences as the Shadow Hand have given him all the skills needed to be an excellent hacker. Elgar Reed features in this book almost from the beginning, though we see the older man striving–and failing–to become a part of the Piper/Turn family. Despite being the closest approximation to a father Forsyth has left, he despises Reed as the literal author of all his hardships.
When Forsyth starts noticing that fantasy novels are disappearing–not just from his bookshelves, but from the history of our world–he begins to panic. As a character from a book come to our world, is his existence here in danger? The only people who remember the disappearing books are Forsyth, Alis (their daughter), and Reed. Shortly after they realize the books are disappearing, Forsyth, Pip, and Alis are pulled from our world back into the Turn world thanks to a Dealmaker spirit and a newly-introduced character: Kintyre Turn’s bastard son, Wyndham.
The novel primarily deals with the Turn family working together to hunt down the Dealmaker spirit and stop her from destroying all the worlds. In time, we find out that the Dealmaker spirit, named Solinde, is actually the Viceroy’s mother and she’s been searching for him ever since he was taken away by Neris at the end of book one. There’s adventure, a dragon, a time at sea, and a final big battle in the Viceroy’s Ivory Tower.
What I Loved
Forget undertones–Frey’s novels are blatantly feminist. It’s brilliantly liberating. In a genre where female characters frequently have no voice, Frey flips the switch, literally taking away the voice of one of the main male characters for the majority of the novel. It’s a tactic that reminds the reader that everyone deserves to have a voice and have it heard.
Frey’s meta approach to fantasy convention is delightful. She pokes fun at conventional themes while using those conventions in a novel about a series of novels that glory in convention. The layers are infinitely clever. One of the fun things about the book is that she can make parts of the story hilariously predictable and simply blame that on Elgar Reed for “lazy world-building.” Because, of course, she can take advantage of all the mistakes and shortcuts Reed takes because she’s writing her novel within his novel. It’s a little difficult to explain, but if you’re a bookworm and a fantasy buff, you’ll find these nuances amusing.
I’ve read very few books with such a fluid approach to sexuality. Gender doesn’t make a difference in these books–sexual attraction is very much based on person and personality than conventions of gender. Again, another area that Frey blasts to pieces in her novel. Sometimes the hero doesn’t end up with the heroine–nor should he have to.
Reed might be lazy when it comes to world-building, but Frey is not. Her worlds revolve around the characters. She makes them as realistic as possible to counteract the stereotypes of Reed’s world. We know Forsyth; we know his pain and his struggles. We know Bevel Dom, a character who has made a full 360 from one-dimensional to fully fleshed out. While we experience Reed’s world through his stereotypes, we experience Frey’s world through the emotions of her complex characters.
I’m a huge fan of Frey’s work and that was solidified before I’d even finished The Untold Tale. She gives the genre a completely fresh approach through modern notions of gender, sexuality, and equality. I strongly recommend both The Untold Tale and The Forgotten Tale as not only brilliant deconstructions of the fantasy genre, but as entertaining and captivating reads. Also, based on the ending to The Forgotten Tale, I have a feeling the next book will have much to delight fans of the series. I won’t give anything away, but shit’s about to go down…and it’s going to be epic.