Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review - The Left-Hand Way by Tom Doyle

Short review: Endicott goes to England, which is overrun with corruption. Dale goes to Japan and finds a hornet's nest of angry dead. Scherie goes to Turkey and is betrayed. But Roderick is in Kiev, and that's where everyone is headed for a showdown with evil.

To the world's corners
Ask where does magic come from?
Us and a dead world

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: There is a world in which magical forces battle one another to determine the fate of nations. A world in which greedy and grasping practitioners of magic pursue immortality even if it will cost every life on the planet. A world in which those who are attuned to the "craft" can talk to their long dead relatives. A world in which the Spanish Armada was kept at bay in part by the efforts of Christopher Dee and the Normandy invasion had good weather because a stubborn American soldier surnamed Morton willed it to be so. A world in which the phenomenal success of Julius Ceasar and Napoleon Bonaparte was at least partially attributable to their supernatural transnational connection to the land. This world is the world of The Left-Hand Way. It might also be our world.

Major Michael Endicott returns for duty in The Left-Hand Way, the follow-up novel to Tom Doyle's American Craftsmen, as do both Dale and Scherie Morton. Unfortunately, both Roderick Morton and Madeline Morton also return to action, and this time the action isn't confined to the United States, as Roderick has bigger fish to fry than merely controlling the direction of the American Craft Services (as the magically inclined branch of the U.S. Armed Services are known). In the novel, Doyle expands both the cast of character and the magical world they inhabit while delivering a fast-paced world-spanning adventure that starts off with an arcane bang and doesn't let up until the sorcerous denouement.

The story starts off some time after the conclusion of American Craftsmen - evidenced by the fact that Scherie has completed her training and is now a full fledged member of the U.S. Armed forces, ready to be deployed on missions. And deployed she is, as are her husband Dale and their former rival turned friend Michael Endicott, scattering them across the globe. Scherie is sent to Istanbul to perform the extraction of a pair of craft personnel from a dangerous assignment. Endicott is sent to the United Kingdom to help ferret out traitors in MI13, Britain's equivalent to the U.S. Craft Services, and Dale travels to Japan on what seems to be somewhat less than fully official status to try and find out what happened to his father before he went insane and died.

While the story is something of an ensemble piece that rotates between the many cast members, the central protagonist is clearly Michael Endicott and not Dale or Scherie Morton, or even the newly introduced Grace Marlow, all of whom wind up almost reduced to the role of the Major's sidekicks by the end of the novel. Focusing on Endicott is one of the elements that makes The Left-Hand Way as good as it is, because the reader is able to watch the convincing transformation as he goes from being the insufferable self-righteous prig that he was when introduced in American Craftsman to the far less cocksure and more complex character that he becomes by the end of this novel. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that a character from a family that seems to have spent most of its existence denying the reality of much of the magical world around them while also partaking of its benefits would undergo a character arc like Endicott's, but the deft manner in which this is handled by Doyle is what makes the transition seem so natural.

Dispersing the three main characters and the central antagonist around the world, Doyle is able to develop the world's magical landscape in an almost seamless fashion. Fracturing the story in this manner also allows multiple new characters to be introduced and developed - most notably the British craft practitioner Grace Marlow, descended from American slaves who threw in with the British during the U.S. Revolutionary War and then sailed to England, but also the Pythia, leader of the vast international network called the Oikumene, and Lara, a quirky Ukrainian woman with the power of foresight. As the story hops from England to Turkey to Japan to Greece to Korea to France to Russia, penultimately to the Ukraine and finally back to the U.S., the cast of characters expands, with each contributing just a little bit more to the picture of Doyle's fictional world.

Also widening the world is the fact that at least some of the story is told from the perspective of Roderick Morton, the master of the "left-hand" evil magic that seems to be mostly about avoiding death. Featuring this frightening but unfailingly polite Morton ancestor as a viewpoint character in the story gives Doyle the opportunity to present the reader with his side of the story, which almost seems reasonable if one doesn't count the terrible human cost of his actions. This also paradoxically both builds up Roderick as an imposing threat, and makes him seem almost buffoonish at times. On the one hand, Roderick's vast personal power is made painfully apparent every time he shows up in the novel, but on the other hand, his plan for gaining power seems to hinge upon an entirely unfounded assumption, which makes one question how someone who is intelligent enough to weave the intricate schemes that Roderick weaves could rely upon the gratitude of a dangerous entity from a world of nothing but death as his planned means of ascending to godlike power. Even this seeming almost foolishness on Roderick's part helps develop Doyle's magical reality, as one realizes that the cleverness of Roderick's plans stems not from his intelligence, but from his magical foresight, and without that foresight, he doesn't make very good decisions. Roderick is powerful, callous, and violent, but is also still a fallible human.

In my review of American Craftsmen I noted that the secretive nature of the pervasive governmental control over the lives of the American "fighting families" was almost certainly a corrupt system that would cause problems. While the extreme control over the "fighting families" seems to have relaxed just a tiny bit by the time of the events in The Left-Hand Way, the reflexively secret and paranoid nature of magical organizations across the globe is highlights in this volume. And when that paranoia is pushed along just a little bit by Roderick Morton, it results in chaos that substantially hinders the protagonists in their efforts by allowing the magical equivalent of fifth columnists to grow up unnoticed within almost every group of magically inclined individuals in the book. This may be a subtle commentary on the nature of secretive intelligence organizations - by their very nature they sow unrest. Trying to keep things hidden allows them to become corrupted and used as a weapon against the very people they were originally intended to protect.

American Craftsmen was, for the most part, Dale Morton's story, and was an exclusively American story focused almost entirely on concerns unique to the United States. The Left-Hand Way expands the world, opening a window onto the craft traditions of nations across the globe. The Left-Hand Way also raises the stakes, as the threat posed by the villains in the book goes from being merely the national crisis presented in American Craftsmen to a threat to every living thing on the planet in this volume. American Craftsmen was a good book that hinted at greater things. The Left-Hand Way delivers those promised greater things in a way that is both satisfying and leaves the reader looking forward to the next book in the series.

Previous book in the series: American Craftsmen
Subsequent book in the series: War and Craft

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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