Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Review of The Jack of Souls, by Stephen C. Merlino

 (Tortoise Rampant, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-9862674-1-3

Fantasy writing is in many ways akin to a Jackson Pollock painting—at first glance, it seems like a simple enough art form to execute. Swirl a stick, drip some paint, and let dry. Or, in the case of Fantasy, create some countries (include some islands) engaged in political intrigue; brew some cultural misunderstanding; have some opposing armies; throw in a few dragons and/or magic, a little bit of romance, just a dash of sex and rough language, and publish.
Here’s the problem with these ideas. Have you ever tried to replicate a Jackson Pollock? It’s not at all easy. It’s the same with Fantasy.
Just as Jackson Pollock combined uniquely individual instinct, symbolism, and technique to create canvases rich in meaning, a successful Fantasy novel takes the well-worn tropes of the genre and reconstitutes them through the (hopefully unique and powerful) vision and voice of the genre. Tolkien, Martin, Rowling—perhaps the Triad that will forever be the Standard by which all future Fantasy is judged—all created distinctive works within the confines of the genre.
Stephen C. Merlino’s The Jack of Souls fares well against the Standards of the Fantasy world. His set-ups, characters, and stakes combine to create a rich tapestry of details and plot points that keep the reader turning the pages, chapter after chapter. While starting with stock characters, such as the book’s (anti-)hero, Harric—a young vagabond with a mix of street skills and attitude—he quickly takes them to new places through a universe that mixes black magic, chivalry, and political maneuvering in ways similar to Game of Thrones, but with far different emphases.
Each chapter opens with a quote from a song or book that exists within the world (the Arkendian Isles) Merlino has created with such obvious love and care. This device anchors the action in a much larger, older environment of factional histories without bogging down the plot with Biblical lists of families and war chronicles—a strategy that makes Merlino’s book far more readable than any of Martin’s.
Another area where Merlino succeeds at least as well or even better than the Standards is in his use of magic, which is deeply integrated in the cultures he’s created and rarely used as a Deus ex Machina to get the author out of otherwise inescapable scenarios. This magic-to-Machina ratio is a sure tipoff as to the ability of a modern author to deliver something new and compelling to the reader of Fantasy, and Merlino comes out on the winning end of the equation.
Closely related to the magic is the darkness of many of the characters, including a priest. Pulling from such tropes as vampires, wraiths, and gargoyles, Merlino adds his own dark originals to create a tapestry of evil that goes deep instead of over the top—a device that allows his heroes to be plenty flawed and non-heroic at times, since, by comparison with the forces amassing against them, they are still the group we’d like to see win.
In the final analysis, it is clear that Merlino has practiced his craft and honed it to a fine point. The prose is exquisite and the plotting well-crafted and devoid of filler.

Book One of the Unseen Moon Series, The Jack of Souls is a winner of the 2014 PNWA and SWA Awards for Fantasy. There are two planned sequels:  The Knave of Souls and  The Prince of Souls.

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