Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review - War and Craft by Tom Doyle

Short review: Even though they are in exile and on the run, Morton, Endicott, Marlowe, and Rezvani re called upon to save the world one more time. The real question this time is not who will survive, but whether anyone at all will.

A magic wedding
Flight from danger to danger
Then, apocalypse

Full review: War and Craft is the third, and definitely final, book in Tom Doyle's American Craftsmen series, a fantasy that posits the existence of magical craftspeople in the modern world who are mostly tied to their home countries and native magical traditions. The series started in the novel American Craftsmen with a conflict that was almost entirely internal to the U.S. crafting community, continued in The Left-Hand Way in which the conflict spread outward, most notably to Russia, the Ukraine, and Japan, and reaches it denouement in this novel, where the threat has become both global and, for the protagonists, intensely personal.

After a brief prologue where Ossian Mac Cool, the last of the Fianna guardians of the three gifts of the order is introduced via a rather bloody confrontation with some members of Left Hand adherents, Most practitioners or the arcane arts engage in rather mundane craft, but those who dabble in the darker arts are said to be "Left Hand" practitioners, and make up the villainous contingent in the novel. Part of the tension in the story comes from the fact that one of the heroes - Dale Morton - is the last scion of a craft bloodline that is notorious for indulging in Left-Hand craft, and one of his ancestors was the primary villain in the first two books. The ambiguous nature of the heroes is ramped up still further due to the fact that Michael Endicott, a member of a house traditionally opposed to the Mortons and their Left-Handed ways, was only kept alive in The Left-Hand Way due to the use of Left-Hand magic, and is now sustained by Left-Hand infused nanobots in his body. Throughout the novel, both are tempted by the Left-Hand craft time and again, and they are rather understandably regarded with suspicion by every craft practitioner who comes into contact with them.

After the prologue, the story shifts to the four central characters - Dale Morton, Michael Endicott, Scherie Rezvani-Morton, and Grace Marlowe where they are hiding out in Japan following their refusal to obey orders in the previous book. Granted, the actions they took in the last book did save the world, but as they took their actions in defiance of their superiors, they start this book "on the lam". Plus, given that Endicott appears to have taken a step forward to becoming a trans-national craft power (a situation that has caused large scale wars in the past), even those outside of the United States government view the quartet with caution. Other nations, including Japan, clearly see a possible opportunity to garner an edge for themselves by offering asylum to the group, but are wary of the potential harm that may ensue.

The quartet are not just in Japan sitting around, they are there so that Endicott and Marlowe can get married. This is an event of some import in the magical world created by Doyle, as the union of two craft families is a big deal and looms even larger in that it is the union of two craft families from different countries, and one of the betrothed may be an impending trans-national threat to boot. There is an array of rituals and taboos surrounding a craft marriage, the most salient one being that there is a true surrounding the wedding until after the marriage is consummated, meaning that the quartet of heroes are safe for the first part of this segment of the story, allowing numerous representatives from around the world to be introduced, including the Jessica Mwangi of Kenya, Omatr Khan of Pakistan, Zhuge Liang from China, and the emissary from the Vatican, a priest named Cornaro. Even by introducing some of these characters only in passing, Doyle is expanding and deepening the mythic reality of his fictional world, making it feel more like a fully realized place with each addition.

The wedding goes smoothly, and then all hell breaks loose as expected afterwards as various enemies try to eliminate Marlowe and Endicott as soon as their happy event has concluded. This leads to a running fight through the streets of Yokohama where the four heroes pick up an unexpected new ally and suffer an entirely unexpected loss that is caused by an entirely unexpected enemy. Their hosts soon let them know that they have worn out their welcome in Japan and they hop into a plane and head off without much of a plan, dazed from the curveball they had just been thrown. They end up more or less tumbling into India, where they are confronted by an Indian craft community that is both powerful and deeply suspicious of them, but needs their services for a mission of critical import, which is where the real meat of the plot turns up - in the world sanctuary, a monastery located in disputed territory near the three-way border between India, Pakistan, and China.

As a condition for offering the quartet (actually quintet, or possibly sextet, depending on how you count "people") refuge, the Indian government gets them to agree to investigate the world sanctuary and report on the source of the strange events that had recently begun happening. Because Scherie is pregnant, the other three more or less conspire to get her to agree to go to Italy and meet with Cornaro on the pretext that she needs to learn more about banishing spirits before they head to the sanctuary. Of course, as soon as she is safely packed away, Dale, Michael, and Grace immediately head off to the mountains to try to infiltrate the sanctuary. With the team split, the story hops back and forth between Scherie and the strike team as each finds themselves confronted with mortal danger. For the strike team trio, the danger is readily apparent, and they knew ahead of time that they were walking into a situation that was going to be potentially life-threatening (and even soul-threatening) and every step they take just ramps up the tension in the story. For her part, Scherie expected to be going to meet with a potential ally and learn some valuable information, but she is fairly quickly disabused of this notion and finds herself locked in an unexpected struggle for her life and the life of her unborn child. On the other hand, Scherie does learn valuable information and gains an unexpected ally, but the information comes from a source she didn't expect, and the ally is someone she didn't even know she was going to meet. One of the persistent themes of War and Craft, and indeed the American Craftsman series as a whole is that this sort of serendipity is the foundation upon which victories are built.

It is during this portion of the book that the novel shifts in tone. While the early parts of the book had been filled with action and adventure, it was an almost rollicking kind of action, reminiscent of what something like James Bond would have been like if magic had been in play. Once Scherie heads to Italy and the remaining trio make their way to the world sanctuary, the tone quickly becomes much darker, dipping into the horror genre at times. Although each of the heroes is confronted with malevolent enemies intent upon their destruction, the real horror they face comes from within themselves, as time and again they face situations in which their own fears and weaknesses are used against them. Doyle pushes the reader relentlessly forward: Each time one turns to the next page, one finds themselves hoping against all reason that Endicott, Marlowe, Morton, or Rezvani can somehow find a way to deal with the terrors that they face without damning themselves, and each time one turns to the next page, the author refuses to let his characters off the hook. Three of the four central characters reach the point of no return, and each of those three continues forward, pressing on despite the personal cost. Victory can be had, but the price that will be exacted in exchange is tremendous. The brilliance of this book is that every step the characters take seems perfectly reasonable and at the same time completely horrible and the whole time the reader is hoping that conclusion that feels inevitable can somehow be averted all the while knowing that it cannot.

Early in War and Craft, one of the characters tells the reader how the story is going to end. Telling the reader where the story is going is a difficult to use technique, but when it works it can be very effective - John Michael Straczynski used this approach to great effect a couple of times in Babylon 5 - and Doyle deploys it almost perfectly here. By letting the reader know what is going to happen, the author gives the outcome an almost existential inevitability that serves to give the entire book a sense of impending doom. Paradoxically, this general air of overwhelming dread serves to provide a glimmer of hope, as one finds themselves wishing for the heroes to avert this foretold conclusion, desperately looking for ways that they could evade this seemingly foregone conclusion. Even so, when the story winds its way to the dire end that one has been anxiously hoping could be avoided, it feels strangely satisfying, as if the grim ending was the only way the story could have ended. That is, perhaps, the greatest tribute to the quality of the book: It ends not perhaps in the way that one wanted, but in the way that it had to end, and as a result, one walks away from the book feeling content, albeit a kind of drained and devastated contentment.

Previous book in the series: The Left-Hand Way

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