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The Saints of the Sword
John Marco
Bantam, 560 pages

The Saints of the Sword
John Marco
John Marco was born and raised on Long Island, NY, and grew up reading and enjoying fantasy adventure stories. Before becoming a full time fiction writer, he worked as a technical writer in various industries, including aviation, computer technology, and home security. His Tyrants and Kings series is an expression of his passion for epic literature and military history.

John Marco Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Grand Design
SF Site Interview: John Marco
Excerpt: The Grand Design
SF Site Review: The Jackal of Nar

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Despite Count Biago's apparent victory at the conclusion to The Grand Design, his rule and vision for uniting the realm is far from secure, nor without potential and powerful enemies. Old comrades -- Admiral Nicabar and Tassius Gayle -- are to prove uneasy confederates, harbouring personal ambitions and grudges that threaten to undo the fragile peace the new emperor seeks for Nar. And, in the struggle that will ensue, former friends will be betrayed, and earlier adversaries will become the most unlikely of allies.

In The Saints of the Sword, John Marco has continued to improve upon his military saga, Tyrants and Kings, building upon the strengths of the previous two books while continuing to step back from some of their earlier weaknesses. In particular, the author has skillfully expanded upon his use of multiple perspective used to such good effect in The Grand Design, adding new and strong characters with the introduction of Alazrian, Kasrin and Elrad Leth, as well as further developing the emerging roles played previously by Biagio, Nicabar and the Queen of Liss. Richius Vantran, the dominant protagonist in The Jackal of Nar, withdraws even further into the background, a decision that I applaud, as I have always found his characterization mildly problematic, with his vacillating, irresolute and at times almost overwrought resistance to the part he plays in the saga. In terms of character development, Richius in some ways has changed little from his initial appearance, still carrying on the same internal debates in the same indecisive fashion found in the opening chapters to the trilogy. Weighed against the characters of Simon in The Grand Design, or Biagio or Kasrin in this work, Richius' actions and motives appear equivocal and not as successfully realized, threatening his character with becoming marginalized and overshadowed as new and more purposeful and complex characters move to central stage. This particularly was true in the case of Simon in book two, who to a large degree reflected and confronted conflicts in many ways similar to Richius', but with greater strength, clarity and sympathy of purpose. After a time, Vantran's continued ambivalence and inability to resolve his internal dilemmas -- at first a strength to lending complexity and verisimilitude to his character -- finally begins to erode the reader's sympathy towards his original role, not necessarily an auspicious development when concerning the primary player in a heroic, military fantasy. Ultimately, Richius' persistent failure to significantly and comparatively develop and evolve as a figure gives the impression that, despite his earlier potential as a lead protagonist, somehow the author has failed to fully resolve Vantran's wavering characterization, with the end result that by the third and final book, Richius has become largely a static figure, without the appeal or interest generated by many of the newer and more effectively portrayed players to this drama. Perhaps for this reason Marco seems increasingly willing to abandon his original hero in favour of the more complex and multifaceted personalities he has arrived at through the emergence of newer and, in the end, more dynamic characters.

The author has also refined his use of political intrigue, the series in many ways beginning more and more to mirror George R.R. Martin's ongoing Song of Ice and Fire, without seeming a knock-off, though lacking the latter's scope and depth of detail and characterization. Nonetheless, those of you who have enjoyed Martin's current series will likely find much to admire here, as long as comparisons are not drawn too closely. Such comparison would, after all, prove unfair to both authors, as well as ignore differences both in themes and setting, as Martin's world is far more firmly rooted in the medieval, perhaps mirroring more closely the realm of traditional fantasy, whereas the kingdom of Nar temporally blends elements of industrial Europe, bending one's sense of historical time and perspective, even occasionally hinting at elements that might more normally be associated with science fiction than fantasy. Granted, none of this is done in a particularly bold or dramatic manner, as say in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station or Matthew Stover's flipping of the heroic upon its ear (and here, again, comparisons must be taken advisedly), but nonetheless addresses a willingness on the part of the author to tackle the genre with a greater adventurousness than typical for most fantasy. One might almost wish he had taken it further. But as Mr. Marco has steadily throughout this series been improving upon his efforts, there is every reason to expect even greater and more imaginative work in the future, be it in Nar or elsewhere.

Marco does continue at times to make his plots a trifle too tidy, certain characters too readily predisposed to alter their stripes or accept reversals in fortune. It is difficult to completely accept Biagio's change of heart, despite the author's every attempt to convince us, and Nicabar's ready acceptance and re-embrace of Kasrin seems too spontaneous and effortless to be entirely credible. Other incidents occur with similar ease or coincidence. However, despite my criticisms, the three novels comprising Tyrants and Kings are one of the better debuts and military fantasies to appear in recent years, each book building upon the successes of its predecessor, and offering plenty of drama, intrigue and vividly wrought action for those seeking fantasy with a heavily military flavour, at times darkly and brutally rendered. While lacking the sheer scale, tumult and rampant imagination of Steven Erikson's ongoing Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (and here comparisons are more apt), this series solidly announces a new and significant talent for the field, and one that suggests the potential to look beyond what has merely gone before. For those who delight in the work of David Gemmell and Glen Cook, this represents a more intelligently written vehicle, with a larger vision of what heroic or military fantasy might have to offer. And because the author has not merely been content to rest upon his initial efforts, but has instead striven with each new book to improve upon his original work, there exists every reason to suspect that the author's ambitions for the future will equally strive to surpass what has come before.

For this reason, I will be among those looking forward with great anticipation to the author's next work, The Eyes of God, due out in early 2002. Having already made a notable impact with The Jackal of Nar, The Grand Design, and The Saints of the Sword, there exists every expectation that the author will continue to bring his growing talents to bear upon future novels, which can only help to rejuvenate the often faded and somewhat tattered standards cluttering up the battlefields of heroic and military fantasy.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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