Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Retro Review: The Devil's Armor by John Marco

Here's another review from the archives, originally posted to SFFWorld back in 2003...

John Marco's The Devil's Armor, is a direct follow-up to his first hardcover release, The Eyes of God, picking up the story of the characters’ lives where we last left them. Lukien, the Bronze Knight resides in Grimhold, stoic sentinel of the legendary land of the InHumans; Baron Thorin Glass, having left the renegade Jazana Carr, settles into a tenuous residence there as well. Gilwyn, the hobbling Librarian's Apprentice, is now regent to Grimhold's neighbor, Jador.

Spoilers for The Eyes of God follow

Marco starts this novel with a similar, if truncated, plot device as he employed in The Eyes of God, to start this novel. We see the ending of Jazana Carr's years’ long struggle as her forces finally conquer the land of Norvor, ruled by King Lorn. King Lorn “the Wicked” flees his nation with his infant daughter Poppy as nearly all he held precious and trusted implodes. Though somewhat graphic in the early scenes, the investment of emotion and display of intensity set the mood for the course of the novel. Marco re-introduces the primary characters, and reveals more layers of the magical land of Grimhold. With the climactic battle at the end of The Eyes of God, many now know Grimhold is a reality, and not just a mythical realm to dream about. Pilgrimages are undertaken by many who are suffering and wounded in the after math of The Eyes of God, simply feeling it is their right to receive the marvelous benefits of Grimhold. Such is not the case; these people have little understanding of the Akari, the undead residents and source of magic in Grimhold, and their limits.

With Akeela (the king from The Eyes of God) dead, Marco invests more time into the characters of Baron Glass and Minkin, the maternal leader of Grimhold. We see more of their inner strengths and weakness as the crises come to the doorstep of both Grimhold and eventually, Glass and Lukien’s homeland, Liiria. How Marco naturally plays out each character’s crisis seamlessly unfolds more layers of each character’s personality. Baron Glass, justifiably fearful of Jazana Carr's promise to invade Liiria, struggles with the temptation of the titular Devil's Armor, an indestructible suit of glistening magical black armor. Though much of it is veiled in dark mystery Minkin dutifully informs Glass and Lukien of the toll it exacts on its wearer. Very little is said about the toll it would exact, excepting for the magnitude. Not very much is seen of Lukien early on, as he patrols the borders of Jador and Grimhold, fighting of raiders of all sorts, with Gilwyn acting as regent of Jador. As the plot unfolds, the titular Armor is only hinted at until the midpoint of the novel. From that point, the characters begin their convergence, again for both the greater good of the people involved and their own personal reasons.

What Marco has always excelled at in his previous novels, is again, a highlight in this novel. Regardless of the character, be he/she a despot, a thief, a turncoat, a bold warrior, a brash young man or a insipid young girl, John Marco makes you trust the character. He makes their story and reasons for their actions, while not always wholly approvable, nearly always understandable. For example, throughout the novel, Jazana Carr is portrayed as an evil witch by the people of Liiria, Grimhold, and Jadar. When scenes of Jazana Carr arrive and we see her motivations and reasons, she doesn’t come across as the witch the other characters maker her out to be. What this does is play not so much a struggle against good and evil, but of two strong sets of characters, with believable motivations and understandable reasons for what they do. While there are great deeds of evil and scenes of cruelty and death, the characters themselves are not cardboard flat ‘evil’ characters, they are real people with real motivations, and most importantly, real weaknesses.

The character of Lorn also has a maligned past as a wicked tyrant. In his arduous struggle against Carr, he has been starving his people, becoming a despot and bled his nation dry. While this may indeed be the case, the hardships Marco pulls him through breathes life into the character, shedding a light of goodness on the character. An example of this is how he deals with his daughter Poppy. Being born deaf and most probably blind, children with such disabilities have their lives ended at birth in Lorn’s native land of Norvor. Lorn could not bring himself to do this, as he cares for her as any father would. Perhaps he sees her as his means of redemption, more likely, it is his love as father shining through, not even considering this sort of emotional display as redemption. As Lorn’s journey through the novel progresses, he continues to impress those he meets, breaking the proverbial mold of what they thought to expect from him.

Another of this book’s strengths is the depth Mr. Marco invests into the magic inherit in Grimhold, the ‘dead’ race of the Akari and their bonds to the InHumans. A major portion of the novel takes place in Grimhold, and we see more of the inhabitants, get to know more of the history behind the people only glimpsed at in The Eyes of God. A triangle of love/obsession and power traps a few of the characters, binding them into their ultimate fates.

How does this novel compare to its contemporaries? From the novels published in the genre this year (2003), it easily holds up quite well. There is a sense of epic about this novel, as in the best of fantasy novels, yet you get a sense of Marco holding back, not revealing his whole hand, in terms of what can be told in this world. The sense of wonder in the Grimhold scenes, the scenes of the battle against Azar, all equate to a fine, entertaining reading experience. There have been quite a few worthy epic fantasy novels published this year, and Marco’s novel, along with Greg Keyes’ The Briar King, stand out as greats among this year’s offerings. Both novels illustrate the grandness of scale in the epic work, while still managing to focus on each character, giving them a sense of uniqueness in the novel; an individuality in a genre otherwise wrought with overstated clichés. In both Keyes and Marco’s novels, despite the epic-ness of the events, the characters stand out on the same grand scale of the story.

As the novel draws to a close, it becomes evident the whole story will not end in this volume. This may be my only complaint; while The Eyes of God was pretty much a standalone, with the possibility subsequent volumes, Marco leaves no doubts of future volumes following The Devil’s Armor. At its heart, though, this is a novel about people, and the human spirit. Yes there are magical trinkets and talismans, yes there are bonds between the living and unloving and yes there are creatures nonexistent in our world. However, what drives this novel are the characters --- what brings them to the brink of self-destruction, the lengths they will go to redeem themselves and their lands. In all of this, John Marco has again illustrated why he is one of the preeminent novelists at the gates of fantasy literature. With The Devil’s Armor, John Marco continues to build his reputation as an Epic storyteller.

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