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The Jackal of Nar
John Marco
Bantam Spectra, 660 pages

The Jackal of Nar
John Marco
John Marco was born and raised on Long Island, NY, and grew up reading and enjoying fantasy adventure stories. The Tyrants and Kings series is an expression of his passion for epic literature and military history. He is currently working on the next installment of the Tyrants and Kings saga.

John Marco Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

To say that the epic fantasy genre is plagued with clichés (predictable plots, cardboard characters, trite images) has itself become a cliché. It's certainly true that there's a lot of formulaic writing in fantasy -- although I suspect much less than many people, especially those who don't read widely in the field, assume. But just as certainly, there are writers who make an effort to work beyond the stereotypes, or who perhaps are never tempted to go near them in the first place. Take, for instance, John Marco. His debut effort, The Jackal of Nar, rivals the biggest of Big Fantasy in length and complexity, but in most other ways skirts formula entirely to create an intriguingly different sort of epic saga.

Arkus, ruler of Nar, has brought technology to his empire in the form of fearsome war machines that have helped him satisfy his insatiable appetite for conquest. But he has grown old in the process, and now even the revitalizing potions produced by the war labs aren't enough to hold away the approach of death. He knows that there's magic hidden at the heart of the mysterious, never-conquered land of Lucel-Lor, home of the white-haired Triin people. Arkus intends to seize Lucel-Lor, not just to extend his empire, but because he believes its magic can make him immortal.

Arkus sends his armies into Lucel-Lor, ostensibly to prop up its despotic ruler, who is attempting to resist a popular uprising spearheaded by Tharn, a charismatic, magically-gifted religious leader. One of Arkus's commanders is Richius Vantran, heir to the throne of Aramoor, who has been assigned the impossible task of conquering the Dring valley.

Marco has crafted a huge saga of war and love, loyalty and honour. The story is engrossing, the plot turns credible, the characters fully-rounded. No one is completely good, not even Richius, who for all his bravery and compassion possesses some very human failings; no one is completely evil either, not even the savage Triin warlords Richius first fights as faceless enemies and later confronts as human beings. Tharn especially is an interesting creation, believably combining within himself extremes of ruthlessness and sainthood.

I was also impressed with Marco's world-building. From the polluted Black City of Nar to the many different tribes and climates that make up Lucel-Lor, it's all both plausible and wondrous, and gives depth to the theme of cultural conflict that runs throughout the book. The process by which Richius comes to terms with Triin society, shedding his prejudices in the process, is nicely handled.

As mentioned above, Marco manages to avoid nearly all the pitfalls of fantasy cliché in his sprawling, intricate epic. There are no quests to be followed, enchanted talismans to be won, Evil Overlords to be overthrown, or dark forces to be confined. Though set in an invented world, this is very much a story of human tribulation and triumph, which, but for the magic, could probably be transposed to any period of real history. Even the magic isn't quite standard. It's more like psi power -- telekinesis, telepathy -- than the typical fantasy magic of spells and spirits. It's not benign and biddable, either, but cruel and destructive. Tharn, more magically gifted than any other Triin, regards his power as a burden, and believes the gods have cursed him for his misuse of it.

At times, the book's technical execution falls a little short of its other virtues. There is strong writing, especially in the battle scenes, which are vivid and well-paced. However, there are also some awkward passages, and now and then the conversations between the characters seem to drift out of focus. As well, the mid-section could have done with some tightening. But these unevennesses, forgivable in a first novel, don't in any way overshadow the many strengths and pleasures of this impressive début. It's an exciting start to what I'm sure will be a major fantasy career.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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