Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/
Barb has been reading The Jack Of Ruin by Stephen C Merlino
Epic fantasy is an ambitious genre to take on. After Lord of the Rings defined it, great series from the Belgariad to Harry Potter refined it, and Star Wars took it into space, it’s got to be a challenge to extend the tropes into new territory, especially for the middle book of a series. In my review of The Jack of Souls, Book 1 of the wonderful Unseen Moon series, I said that author Stephen Merlino checks off every one of the sacred tenets of epic fantasy consecrated by patron saint J.R.R. Tolkien, paying loving homage even as he turns the genre sideways and makes it his bitch.
The Jack of Ruin is basically the quest portion of the series. Harric, the young trickster, has secretly tapped into magic to save his friends from Sir Bannus, who seeks to destroy his queen and return the kingdom to old ways—which, among other things, would mean that fatherless people like Harric would become slaves again. Unfortunately, the young woman he loves, Caris, is magically compelled by a ring meant for the Queen. Although aware that Caris’ loathing for the ring now includes not only hatred of her magically-compelled lust for Harric, but for Harric himself, he is forced to remain by her side out of fear for what the ring will do if he leaves her. Meanwhile, their small band races ahead of the pursuing Sir Bannus in hopes of getting the alien ambassador Brolli back to his country in time to ratify the treaty he holds, as well as remove the ring’s power over Caris. But each member of their group hides their own secrets, and each holds the seed to their destruction.
World building? Is there a “too good” category? Author Stephen Merlino has taken the genre’s standard medieval-with-magic framework and built several worlds within it, from the slightly-steampunk technology workarounds of Harric’s magic-averse home kingdom, to the starkly dangerous quest landscape, to the treehouse world of the chimp-like Kwendi. In fact, the meticulously drawn and consistent landscapes are so detailed that I found myself grateful for the gorgeous maps and illustrations scattered throughout the text.
- Mystical hero from the past gathering a small band of Heroes, Simple Folk, and (probably) Lost Heir to the throne? The only card-carrying hero is Sir Willard, whose heroic past is only matched by his narrow-minded judgemental dismissal of anyone who uses magic. His courtly romantic decision to abandon his immortality in order to grow old and die with his love, the Lady Anna, is challenged and abandoned when he realizes magic is the only hope to accomplish their mission and save the kingdom. Even as Sir Willard regains the youth and strength associated with his returning immortality, the resultant connection with the mad god Krato threatens his already perilous grip on sanity. Of course, that doesn’t stop his loathing for Harric’s apparent brush with magic, even thought that’s actually what has saved them so far. Their suitably motley little band also includes Caris—Willard’s gifted warrior squire whose magical connection to horses often leaves her unable to function in human terms. Her fundamental loathing for magic not only exceeds Sir Willard’s hypocritical rejection of Harric, but equally hypocritically fails to recognize the magical elements of her own connection with horses.
- Hobbit? Of course there’s Brolli—the magic-wielding chimp-like ambassador who provides assistance even as his own secrets reveal far more potentially sinister intentions.
- Super cool sword and horse? Sir Willard’s sword Belle is still as sharp as ever, not to mention Molly—his immortal, bad-tempered, magic horse whose literal blood thirst is both a threat and a enticement for Caris.
- Dark force from the dark past returning for (unspecified) dark purpose? The villainous Old Ones under Sir Bannus are really, really dark, with the most powerful and insane barely under the control of their deviously evil masters. But here’s the thing about all these old magic-using types—they’re all in Arkendia, a land whose god has given them three fundamental rules: “Let none of you worship or pray gods for favors, Nor bow down to high lords among you. Neither rely you on magic, and you shall be strong.” So—no gods, no high lords, and most especially no magic. Their favorite oath is “Gods leave me.” It’s kind of an uphill slog for the forces of evil. Then there are the ambiguously threatening Kwendi, and the creatures of the Unseen, from Harric’s wisecracking imp partner Fink—“Beneath a long, bulbous nose, a hedge of needlelike teeth stretched in a permanent grin. White, pupilless eyes gleamed like boils tight with fluid”—to Fink’s malevolent sisters headed by the whimsically-named Missy.
- One ring to rule them all? There was going to be one, but the Queen got really annoyed at the implication that she needed a man, and then it accidentally got stuck on Caris’ hand, and… well the whole ring-thing is kind of a mess. Now Caris loathes Harric even as the ring magically compels her lust for him.
- Politics? With the fate of Arkendia and her Queen hanging in the balance, with forces struggling to control the powers of the gods, and with those powers potentially capable of destroying the entire world, the stakes are definitely and suitably epic.
Does it sound like I like this book? Well, it’s too big and too complicated and (518 pages!) probably way too long. Actually, I love it. By the end of The Jack of Ruin, almost every character—those who survive anyway—faces their black moment, coming out if it with a greater sense of purpose if not, in many cases, any actual understanding of what’s happening to them. They still have their secrets, their self-imposed limitations, and their goals that define them. I can’t wait to see where that takes them in the last book of the series, and only hope we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Overall, even with the brilliant subversions of the epic fantasy genre, there are two things that I believe take The Jack of Ruin to an “I’d-give-more-stars-if-I-could” level. The first is the fact that every single character is an unreliable narrator. They all have secrets that provide motivation for their actions and decisions. And the second is that they are almost all three-dimensional beings whose surface appearance often masks enormous flaws and unexpected heroism. For example, the gigantic priest, Father Kogan, is an uneducated, drunken, close-minded buffoon—and also capable of epic feats of strength, bravery, and perception. At the same time, the ‘hero’, Sir Willard, is a narrow-minded elitist snob whose fast-returning immortality might provide the physical strength needed to face Sir Bannus, but gives him precious little grasp of the political subterfuges swirling around him.
Harric’s immortal enemy, Sir Bannus, lies defeated in the valley, his army buried under tons of mountain rubble—a rock fall that Harric brought down with the magic of the Unseen Moon. For now, the quest to deliver the Queen’s peace treaty to the mysterious Kwendi is safe.
But Sir Bannus rises from defeat with Harric’s name on his lips, vengeance in his fist, and a vow to capture the treaty-bearers and spark war to bring ruin upon the Queen. To Harric, death would be preferable, for if she falls, Sir Bannus or another of the Old Ones will reclaim the throne and cast women and bastards like Harric back into slavery.
Yet Harric’s companions condemn his use of trickery and magic to fight Sir Bannus—tools that saved them once before, and which he believes are as vital as swords for the Queen’s protection.
When treachery, discord, and death doom the quest, Harric must choose between the love and regard of his friends and his self-chosen destiny as Her Majesty’s Unseen protector.
It is a choice that will forever bind him to one…and bring ruin to the other.
Stephen Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays and teaches English to teens. He lives with the world’s most desirable woman and two fabulous children, one cat, and three attack chickens.
Growing up in Seattle in constant rain drove Stephen indoors as a child, so he ended up reading a lot. When at the age of eleven he discovered J.R.R. Tolkein, Terry Brooks, and other fantasy writers, he dreamed of writing his own epic tales.
About the time a fifth reading of the Lord of the Rings no longer delivered the old magic, he attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, & that was run by a Scot named Angus. Nevertheless, he sampled Angus’s weird ales, and devoured Angus’s steak & kidney pie (with real offal!).
Stephen later backpacked Britain, where he discovered a magnificent retrospective of Henry VIII’s body development–from childhood to old age–captured in a dozen suits of armor. Each suit was a 3D snapshot in steel of his exact body shape in a specific moment in time. Stephen observed His Majesty was glorious when young, but as an old man the king corpulent and developed what was either elephantiasis or an unhealthy infatuation with his codpiece.
Stratford-upon-Avon inspired Stephen to return the following year to study Shakespeare at the U of Reading. He now teaches Shakespeare, and, by following The Bard’s example of plot thievery, built one of the subplots of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaminto The Jack of Souls. It’s one of his favorite parts of the story.