Julian May

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Saga of the Exiles

I found out the other day, entirely by accident, that Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles is out (in the UK – not in the US, I think) in new editions.  Not before time, if you ask me.

I adored – I don’t think that’s too strong a word, but it was a long time ago so who knows? – this series when I was a teenager.  I definitely really, really liked it.  It’s many years since I read it, so I can’t be 100% certain what I’d make of it now, but for the sake of argument let’s take the word of the young me: it’s great.

I confess, I don’t like the new covers – that dark, fiery one at the top – nearly as much as the elegant original ones I bought way back when (that blueish one down below).  Something about the new ones looks a bit … I dunno, generic?  Uninformative?  Those old covers had a hint of class and exoticism and teasing fascination about them, I thought.

Anyway, leave that aside.  The contents are what matters, right?

In the 22nd century, we invent time travel.  Hooray!  Unfortunately, it basically consists of a strictly one-way gate back to Earth’s Pliocene era, six million years ago.  Not so Hooray.  There are those willing to take a one-way trip to the distant past, though, so a steady trickle of adventurers and eccentrics begins to flow back into prehistory.  The four book series recounts the strange and complicated tale of what they find there and the dramatic effects their arrival has.

Not to spoil any surprises (since it’s spoiled in most descriptions of the books online), but it turns out that the Pliocene world awaiting them is not the uninhabited wilderness they expected.  Instead, it’s a battleground between two warring alien races – exiles of a sort themselves – who welcome new human arrivals from the 22nd century as, essentially, slaves and servants.  What follows from that initial revelation is a grand adventure that mixes epic fantasy and science fiction with tremendous success.

I probably would have liked the series just fine for its exotic setting, fun premise and the drama of aliens contesting the rule of prehistoric Europe.  But what Julian May does is to expand and complicate what might have been a relatively simple narrative by making the humans – who they are, why they’ve come back to the past, and what ‘issues’ they’ve brought back with them – much, much more central to the overall plot than at first appears to be the case.  By the time things really get going – on a genuinely epic scale – prodiguously powerful heroes, heroines and villains are wreaking havoc and threatening cataclysm.  It all feels increasingly like a tale of flawed demi-gods acting out roles from deep myth.

Which in a way it is, because much of what’s going on is based on real-world Celtic mythology.  Races, heroes and weapons are all science fictional stand-ins for their equivalents in the mythological history of the British Isles, especially Ireland.  That May makes it all work, fantasy and science fiction running perfectly happily alongside one another, is no small achievement.

(Although I would say, based on my admittedly imperfect memories, that in truth, at root, it’s functionally a fantasy series. The conceits – like the time gateway, and various other elements that show up – might be science fictional, but in style and tone and plot structures it’s more like a modern epic fantasy than anything else. Maybe space opera, I suppose. Doesn’t really matter. It is it’s own distinctive self.)

I’d highly recommend you give this a try, if you haven’t already. In terms of sheer entertainment and immersion, it was one of the highlights of my early genre reading.  In fact, thinking back, I’m pretty sure Saga of the Exiles was one of just two key series that enabled me to make the transition from childhood love of Lord of the Rings to an enduring affection for more modern epic fantasy (the other series was the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, unsurprisingly). 

Those two – the Saga and the Chronicles – were the books I found back then that really satisfyingly answered the question the young me was unconsciously asking: ‘LotR was great, but what’s being published now that’s the same, and good, but different?’  Without Julian May and Stephen Donaldson, who knows?  I might never have made the jump to long-term genre fan. Never underestimate the potential influence of the right book, encountered at the right time.

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