So… you want to write a fantasy novel?
I know! You could have a medieval-type world where the Dark Lord, once thought defeated, now returns to gather his [why is it always his?] dark forces. The end of the world (or at least the bits we like with, you know, dashing heroes, and good sanitation, and of course ice cream…) is at hand. But wait! Although raised in secrecy with no knowledge of his true destiny, our Hero gathers a devoted but motley band, some Shitastic Artifact/ Ring of Power/ Awesome Sword-thingie, and they all proceed to kick Dark Force butt, after which Hero manages to personally defeat the Dark Lord, probably in one-on-one combat.
- If this story occurs over 27 volumes, it is high fantasy
- If the Shitastic Artifact/ Ring of Power/ Awesome Sword-thingies are for that night’s D&D tournament, it is low fantasy.
- If Hero turns out the be The One, hidden heir to the kingdom, who must assemble the devoted but motley band to aid in restoring him to the throne, it is quest fantasy.
- If Hero has a magic horse/dragon/flying creature, plus he finds a snarky but brave girl who is surprisingly good with a sword, but nevertheless needs to be rescued with depressing regularity, after which they have sex (or if it’s YA they have a Moment and maybe even a Kiss) on horse/dragon/flying creature-back, it’s fantasy romance.
- If Hero has a fairy godmother, three wishes, or a super-mean stepmother, it is a fairy tale and Hero has absolutely no business doing anything of the sort on a horse because if the PTA gets hold of this, Hero’s story will be banned and his name will show up on registered sex-offender sites.
- If Hero meets talking animals who help demonstrate a Universal Truth (like “i before e, Except after c, Or when sounded as “a,”As in neighbour and weigh.” or “If it seems too good to be true it’s probably an election year”) it’s a fable. (Not to be confused with Classic Truth “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813).)
- If Hero is rescued by two brothers named Sam and Dean, it’s fanfiction. Most probably really bad fanfiction…
Only… okay. So that’s been done from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and everything in between. That’s the good thing about tropes like this. When done right, they are absolutely magic. And a heck of a lot of fun.
Please join me below for a review of how author Stephen Merlino completely, totally, and mercilessly embraces and subverts these tropes.
THE MORE JACK, THE MORE RUIN
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 bring war and 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—two things 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.
My Review: 5 out of 5 stars for The Jack of Ruin (Book 2 of the Unseen Moon series) by Stephen 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.
So how did The Jack of Ruin, the latest book in the Unseen Moon series, score on the standard elements of epic fantasy? First, let me say that it absolutely nailed the hardest job of a middle-series book—to move the overall backstory forward while still presenting a completed story arc within that volume. And for the genre’s trope definers? [Confession: I’m going to cheat here and post updates to the categories I listed in my review of the first book.]
- 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.
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.
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.
***I received this book for free from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***
- Book Title: The Jack of Ruin (Book 2, Unseen Moon)
- Author: Stephen Merlino
- Genre: Epic fantasy
- Publisher: Tortoise Rampant Press (December 12, 2017)
- Pages: 518
- Twitter: @stephenmerlino
- Instagram: wordbender
- Facebook: Stephen Merlino
- Pinterest: stephenmerlino
- stephenmerlino (at) hotmail.com
Wow! Great review, Barb, this sounds fantastic!
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There is so much bad epic fantasy out there. (Really, REALLY bad…) So it’s an absolute joy to come across a fresh, creative, well-written series. I can’t wait for the next book!
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