The third installment of The Completist looks at a military fantasy trilogy a little over a decade after the saga’s completion. The year was 1999, a new Century was on the horizon. In the Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing world, there were some very interesting books being written/published and read. We were in the middle of the Harry Potter saga, George R.R. Martin wasn’t yet the Epic Fantasy giant in the he is now, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was still in what many consider its prime, Tad Williams took a break from Epic Fantasy with his massive Otherland SF saga, and Terry Brooks would soon return to his popular Shannara saga. Into this state of affairs enter John Marco with The Jackal of Nar, which launched both his writing career and his Tyrants and Kings trilogy. I immediately took to the series and was very pleased that a colleague where I worked at the time had also read and enjoyed The Jackal of Nar.
The trilogy takes place in a world cohabitated by technology and magic. These two methods of manipulating the world do come into conflict with each other and Marco presents a plausible version of an industrial revolution which has been pushed by the forces of war.
The Jackal of Nar introduces a world in conflict, on the brink of war and a world where complex machinery and engines of war are side-by-side with magic; in other words the novel firmly establishes itself as military fantasy. The clash between nations involves the technology of Nar and the magical land of Lucel-Lor. Initially, the narrative focuses on Richius Vantran, Prince of Nar whose father Arkus is the Emperor. Richius is the Jackal and leading the fight against the forces of Lucel-Lor, which are led by a cultish sorcerer named Tharn. Richius’s forces are overwhelmed until a spiteful ally – Blackwood Gayle – arrives. Vantran saves a woman (Dyanna) from being raped by Gayle, earning his “ally’s” enmity as well as and the woman’s.
While Richius is the protagonist, the character in this trilogy to emerge as Marco’s most potent creation is Count Renato Biagio. Biagio was Arkus’s closest advisor and appoints Richius as King and gives him a wife, despite Richius’s trepidation. Richius is still smitten with Dyanna, despite her dislike of him, so Richius spurns Biagio’s ‘gifts’ angering the count. Dyanna was to be Tharn’s appointed wife, so Marco here plays with arranged betrothals.
Another complexity to the plot is the character group who would seem to be cannon fodder – a group/race who force Richius to contemplate his own orders from his father as well as those of his enemy. A line of morality, shades of gray, if you will. In other words, Marco isn’t telling a story about Good vs. Evil, but rather about people forced into uncomfortable conflict. I thought Marco excelled in this novel depicting both the powerful magic Tharn wielded and the gritty, industrialized smut of Nar’s war machines.
The second installment of the trilogy, The Grand Design, takes place about a year after the events of The Jackal of Nar and focuses on those affected by its conclusion. In many aspects, The Grand Design can be seen as a novel of revenge. The lands once ruled by Emperor Arkus are in chaos and the men who trained under him in Nar battle for the now empty role of Emperor. A battle early in the novel is powerful and effective in illustrating the type of chaos which flavors Nar and the trilogy.
Although Richius was the focal character of The Jackal of Nar, he is now part of a larger cast of characters. As such, Marco employs a multiple point of view perspective for the story, much of the narrative focusing on the conflict of power between Biagio and Herreth a high ranking Archbishop of Nar. It is Biago’s Grand Design (which provides the book’s title) to wrest control of Nar from Archbishop Herreth. This Grand Design also includes revenge on Richius for spurning his attempts to be brought under Biagio’s influence. Biagio goes to great lengths to enforce his plan, he attempts to kidnap Richius’s child through the mercenary Simon Darquis. None of these characters are purely evil or pure knights in shining armor. All have faults; Richius is somewhat naïve, Biagio’s life is sustained by a drug, not unlike another morally ambiguous character, Michael Moorcock’s Elric. Despite Herreth’s seemingly thoughtless slaughter of thousands, he has a soft spot for the tragic young woman Lorla. Marco does a fine job of making each character the hero of his own story.
With all these character machinations in motion, Marco captures multiple military / conflicts of war with a great flair. The Grand Design includes some thrilling naval battles, as focus of the story includes a fascinating island nation. Herreth uses chemical warfare in his attempts to gain a step up against Biagio. In all, the characters and conflicts are balanced quite well throughout.
The Saints of the Sword maintained the high quality of the previous two novels in the series with continued battle action and excellent character interactions. If a major theme of The Grand Design was revenge, one of the themes that came up in this concluding volume was the notion that people can change; or redeem themselves.
Biagio rose in this world through some very unsavory actions, but for what he thought was a greater good. He was cast as one of the main villains in the previous two novels, but throughout The Saints of the Sword, Biaigio constantly tried to prove that he was a changed man. He made apologies for his previous dastardly acts and was truthful in Saints, something he was not in previous volumes. As I’ve earlier indicated, Biagio in my opinion is the star of this series and here in Saints of the Sword he shines brightest. He is very much a Magnificent Bastard and Marco’s ability to turn a character from despicable to admirable could be the greatest strength of the Tyrants and Kings trilogy.
The military flavor of the trilogy builds across the three volumes and here in Saints of the Sword Marco may have crafted some of his strongest conflicts. In particular, the battle of Aramoor was written as if Marco was cribbing notes from the field of battle. I could hear in my mind the swords and axes clashing, the hooves of the horses and the latapi (the deer-like mounts used by a faction in the novel) and the shouts and screams of men in battle. My adrenaline was pumping; I did not want this book (and trilogy) to end.
Originally published in Trade Paperback, the cover art adorning these books are by Douglas Beekman, who also happened to be the artist for one of my favorite books, Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die, so there’s a bit of a kinship between these writers who came onto the FSF scene at relatively the same time. Furthermore, both writers are playing with similar grey characters.
I enjoyed this series a great deal when I initially read it; Tyrants and Kings was something different than other fantasy I’d read at the time. Granted some reviewers and critics drew comparisons at the time to George R. R. Martin, but even that isn’t a full on apples-to-apples comparison and that Marco was ahead of its time. This year alone, two fairly high profile debut novels in what is now being called “Flintlock Fantasy” (A Promise in Blood by Brian T. McLellan and The Thousand Names by Django Wexler) were published. Though Flintlock fantasy isn’t an exact description, the Tyrants and Kings trilogy can easily fit itself into that category with its mix of magic and emerging technology. Other writers who emerged after John’s debut trilogy published and are mining a similar convergence of magic and technology are Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt) and Anne Lyle (Night’s Mask). I would even say that John was ahead of his time with blending some of the elements he blends in the novel and if these books were published today, they’d be receiving a great deal of attention. (Hint: give these books a try, they are available in paperback on amazon.com.) Just like I wouldn’t say Tyrants and Kings fit completely into Flintlock Fantasy, I don’t know if they’d fit quite so neatly into Grimdark either, but the greyness of the characters might lend itself to readers who have enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s and Mark Lawrence’s novels.
Believable characters, fascinating world, thought-provoking conflicts, well-wrought physical conflicts and one of the better Heel-Face Turns in the genre. That’s what you get with John Marco’s Tyrants and Kings. Furthermore, it was rewarding to see an author grow over the course of three books, especially when the author was in a strong place at the start. Go get these books and have fun with them.