Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Review - American Craftsmen by Tom Doyle
Short review: Dale Morton is an American craftsman, magically gifted and in the service of the U.S. Army. Then a mission assigned by the precognitive Sphinx goes bad and he ends up out of the service and on the run from the corruption within the heart of the Pentagon while trying to protect the Iranian woman he has fallen in love with.
A secret mission
Goes quite badly and reveals
Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Dale Morton is a man with problems. As a magically inclined soldier in service of the United States, he follows a long-standing family tradition. Unfortunately, part of his family history is somewhat checkered, and includes the "left-hand Mortons", a family branch that delved into dark magic in an effort to achieve immortality, and so no one trusts him or any of his relatives any more. More problematically, Dale is no longer able to completely control his own magic due to a dying curse placed on him by an Iranian sorcerer. Now, Morton is out of the Army trying to figure out who set him up on his final mission so he can exact revenge.
Tom Doyle's debut novel, American Craftsmen imagines a world that is similar to our own in most ways except that magic is real and "craftsmen", as the members of a handful of magically-inclined families are called, can manipulate its power. In the United States, these families are supposed to have made a bargain with George Washington to provide their services to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and have served the U.S. armed services ever since with their existence kept a secret from the general public. Craftsmen are given credit for raising the fog that helped Washington's army escape from Brooklyn Heights, and with panicking Confederate troops into accidentally fatally shooting Stonewall Jackson. And, we are told, in the United States craftsmen are prohibited from practicing their craft on their own: They are required to serve the government or forego the use of their sorcerous powers.
Through the pages of the book we are introduced to the scions of several magical families in addition to the Mortons, most notably Endicotts, and the Gideons, as well as the Hutchinsons, and the Attuckses. Each family has its own tradition and array of powers. The Endicotts are austere New Englanders, steeped in Puritanism and gifted with the power of command. The Gideons are magical trackers, employed to locate and hunt down rogue craftsmen. In a clever twist, Doyle asserts that the Gideon bibles found in nearly every hotel room in the United States are actually the components of a magical monitoring system connected to the Gideon family. And then there are the "wild cards" - individuals who manifest magical powers but whose background is shrouded in mystery, perhaps intentionally. Among these is the Appalachian, a figure who inhabits and guards the sanctuary where the soul of America is kept. And then there are the "Sphinx", used by the Central Intelligence Agency to predict future possibilities, and "Chimera", used by the Department of Defense for much the same purpose.
It is in this world that Dale Morton's travails take place. After he is essentially forced out of service and barred from practicing his craft again, Morton retreats to his family home in Rhode Island. There, comforted by the ghost of his grandfather and the spirit of the house itself, Morton tries to figure out who is responsible for the disastrous mission that cursed him and caused him to be forcibly retired from Army service. Along the way, he runs into Scherie Rezvani, an Iranian immigrant, who then seeks his assistance so that she may acquire the skills that will allow her to return to her birth nation and fight against its oppressive regime. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Scherie is much more than she originally appeared to be, and her serendipitous appearance in Dale's life seems just a little too much of a lucky coincidence to be believable. But in the world of American Craftsmen magic is described as being the ability to affect probabilities so that the improbable becomes inevitable, which makes the unlikely seeming connection between Morton and Rezvani an example of the power contained in the the collection of countervailing nudges from Sphinx and Chimera.
Morton's efforts, of course, are not unopposed, and as the layers of intrigue are revealed one by one, the nature of the opposition shifts and changes. The most obvious foil for Dale are the Endicotts, as both the politically powerful General Oliver Endicott, and his son Major Michael Endicott harbor a deep mistrust of the Morton family. Both Endicotts (somewhat justifiably) believe that all Mortons are one step away from taking the "left-hand" way and indulging in unspeakable acts of depravity. But General Morton goes one step further: He's convinced (at least in part by communications from Chimera) that Dale has given in to the "left-hand" already, and that the Morton line must be ended. In the Endicotts Doyle has created a pair of characters of a type that are generally difficult for authors to pull off well - misguided but well-intentioned antagonists. Both General and Major Endicott start the book feeling that their distrust of Dale is entirely justified, and their efforts to work against him are the right thing to do. But in Doyle's hands, these two characters are believable and interesting "good" antagonists, although Major Endicott's character arc is, ultimately, much more interesting than Oliver's.
Though the plot is somewhat convoluted, with multiple twists and turns, apparent betrayals that turn out to be cunning stratagems, and actual betrayals from unexpected places, it flows fairly well, and in a manner that both feels plausible and unpredictable at the same time. Morton and Revzani wend their way through the double-crosses and double-double-crosses, unraveling the threads of the conspiracy they find themselves hunted by, until at the very end they peel back what they believe to be the final layers and emerge apparently triumphant. But even then, while they relax in their victory, the seeds of the next conflict are sown in the final pages of the book. Along the way, Doyle shows the reader glimpses and snippets of the magical world hidden within the real one, pulling back just enough of the curtain veiling the secrets of the craftsmen and their disjointed and heavily regimented society to make the story hang together, but still preserving enough mystery to leave the reader wanting more.
Although the novel is quite satisfying, there are some elements that are mildly bothersome, or at the very least unsettling. One plot hole that runs through the novel involves the contents of the Morton family house's basement. While the basement is the afterlife prison of the "left-hand" Mortons, it turns out that some rather critical members of that line are not present, although everyone, including Dale, his father's ghost, and his grandfather's ghost, are all certain that they are. This seems somewhat unlikely, since all of the Mortons are very concerned about the whereabouts of their nefarious ancestors, and are also very certain that they are safely tucked away in the nether regions of their family dwelling. The fact that they simply aren't there and no one noticed seems almost entirely implausible.
The second issue isn't really a plot hole, but is an unsettling aspect of the world described in the novel: The almost unquestioned complete government control over the lives of the members of the magically-inclined "fighting families". Subjected to mandatory government service, denied the use of their natural abilities in any other form of employment, threatened with arrest and secret trial for treason if they contravene these rules, and so on, the craftsmen live their entire lives beholden to the whims of government. And those whims are carried out behind closed doors, entirely out of the public eye, allowing individuals like General Endicott to make almost arbitrary decisions to assassinate another craftsman heavily colored by his personal dislike of the target. Not only that, but the members of the families are intentionally kept separate from one another, making them vulnerable to being picked off one by one, and allowing distance to permit old feuds to fester. This pervasive secret government control, to me, is more disturbing than the idea that there are people who can magically control the weather. A system that hides from public view is almost certainly a corrupt system, and the system that controls the "fighting families" is rotten to the core. And this goes almost entirely unremarked upon. There is a passing mention that this might not be such a good idea near the end of the book, but the comment is aimed at the policy of keeping the "fighting families" separate from one another, not the all-encompassing influence the government exerts over the craftsmen.
These quibbles aside, American Craftsmen is quite a good urban fantasy story. Set in an engaging world and populated by likable heroes, cantankerous allies, and villains that range from misguided to vile, the book is, all puns aside, a well-crafted tale of intrigue and adventure. It also appears to be the first in a series, which, given the strong nature of this volume, is excellent news. Anyone who likes their fantasy set in the "real" world and mixed with decent helping of military adventure will almost certainly enjoy this book.
Subsequent book in the series: The Left-Hand Way
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