I came across Ian Gregoire’s The Exercise of Vital Powers when it was an entry in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. It took me entirely too long to actually read it. There’s no particular reason for this, outside of a towering TBR that I haven’t been able to tame for years. This book has interesting magic, an unlikeable—but very well-crafted—protagonist, and engaging emotional beats. I love stories where magic plays a big role, and that’s absolutely the case here.
I should also note that after receiving feedback through SPFBO, Gregoire revised the work, had it edited, and acquired new cover art. This review is based on this second edition of the novel. One of the things I think is wonderful about self-published novels is that authors can improve them in this way. So, without further ado, my review.
The first thing that jumped out to me about the novel was just how much fun I had reading it. I always read novels primarily for enjoyment, but in this case I had trouble putting it down from the very start. The Order is somewhat Jedi-like, and I really enjoyed a setting where an international organization of magic users played a significant role. The magic system itself was also interesting. It isn’t a hard magic system by any means, but the magic still plays a significant role and we understand how it works just enough to allow it to play that role. The larger history behind the use of Zarantar (the name for the magic in Gregoire’s world), the three possibilities for using it, and other details kept me engaged and looking for additional tidbits to be dropped. The world building in this regard is deep and well thought out. The novel also features a rather unlikeable protagonist in Kayden Jayta. There is also a secondary viewpoint character, the administrator of Kayden’s magic school campus, Fay Annis. While Kayden is certainly unlikeable, it’s obvious that we’re supposed to find her frustrating and difficult to relate to. Gregoire has done a fantastic job of writing an unlikeable character that I still enjoyed reading about! This is incredibly difficult to do, but I’m glad he managed it because I ended up enjoying the ride. One aspect of the novel that helped with this, I think, is that we get regular viewpoints from Fay’s perspective. This often tempers what we’ve seen from Kayden’s perspective and also gives us a perspective on Kayden’s actions that is not her own. As a much more well-balanced person, Fay also feels less frustrating to read about, or at least she did for me. The pay off, however, is some significant character development in the second half of the novel. If you tend to dislike difficult-to-like protagonists, I’d encourage you to give this one a try anyway, as the eventual character development is very satisfying.
While there were many aspects of this novel I enjoyed, there were also a few things that didn’t work for me. The first of those is that almost every male character in the story is, at some point or in some way, trying to get into a female character’s pants. I get that many men are pigs, and chauvinism is a real thing, but a little variety would have been nice. Not every male meets a female and begins immediately plotting how to get them to the bedroom. That just isn’t realistic. To make matters worse, there is one scene early on in the book where several side characters engage in a fight. The male characters are named, but the female characters are referred to as—and I am quoting here—“little miss sunshine” and “miss voluptuous vixen.” I’m not sure if it makes it better or worse that the viewpoint character who knows the names of the male characters but not the two female characters is herself female. The two characters are named later, and I think part of the point is to show the isolation of the main character, Kayden, but still, it did make me cringe, and not in a good way. From a more technical perspective, the prose can feel a bit expository at times, and there are some info dumps scattered throughout the novel that left me wishing the information had been imparted more naturally. A related critique is that there were a couple times when we’re told things rather than shown them, or told them while being shown them, and I think if we had simply been shown them it would have made what ended up being strong character development that much stronger. There were also instances where I felt like sentence structure was a little odd. Finally, Kayden can seem like a bit of a Mary Sue at times, especially in the early portion of the novel. That ends up being explained a bit in the second half, but the early going can be a little rough as a result.
While The Exercise of Vital Powers isn’t a perfect novel, there is something about it that kept me turning the pages. I was intrigued by the characters and magic, and the character development that takes place in the second half of the novel felt very satisfying. Some of the flaws are significant, and the unlikeable protagonist may turn off some readers, but there is still plenty to like in this one if you give it a shot.