Saturday 19 January 2008

Book review: The Jackal of Nar

Given that I've been posting about John Marco recently, and considering that my review of Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie will be delayed by a week, I thought I'd post up a review of John Marco's debut novel The Jackal of Nar. The review (like the book) is a few years old now, but if a couple of people check out John's work as a result then it's well worth it.

First novels are not meant to be as good as this. It is rare to find such epic grandeur, deep characterization and well conceived plotting in a debut novel. Yet this is exactly what is to be found in The Jackal of Nar, by John Marco.

The Jackal of Nar is a breath of fresh air in the genre of epic fantasy. There are no enchanted forests, no magical swords or dragons. Instead, Marco has created a very human-orientated fantasy, centering on the struggle between the oppressive Empire of Nar and the proud nation of Lucel-Lor. The novel centres around Richius Vantran, Prince of Aramoor, who finds himself fighting in the Naren campaign against Lucel-Lor. Yet it is a war that he does not believe in, and when he falls in love with Dyana, a woman of Lucel-Lor, he is suddenly torn between his loyalty and his heart.

The decision forced upon Richius is representative of the novel as a whole - Marco is excellent at placing his characters in difficult, often terrible situations where they are forced to make impossible, heart-breaking decisions. The characterization is what really drives The Jackal of Nar. Richius Vantran is a wonderfully flawed hero - a man who is both loyal and brave, yet who is also plagued by guilt and self-doubt.

There are plenty of villains in the novel - the manipulative, cunning Count Biagio, the shallow, demanding Emperor Arkus - yet it is Blackwood Gayle, Baron of Talistan, who easily steals the show with his rage and sadistic taste for violence. Even the minor characters, such as Nang, Warlord of the Fire Steppes, and Voris the Wolf are given depth and detail. Refreshingly, the female cast is equally well developed, with Dyana proving to be a loving, yet headstrong woman.

Marco is a military history enthusiast and therefore it is unsurprising that there is such a strong military aspect in The Jackal of Nar. The entire plot of the book concerns not just one war, but several. The harrowing experiences of war are clearly depicted, and the reader can sympathize with Richius as the young prince sees his own friends killed and maimed in brutal fashion, and everything that is dear to him destroyed. The technology of Marco's world is different from the norm - aside from the usual bows, swords and lances we also have flame cannons and acid launchers. While such contraptions seem to belong in the realms of sci-fi more than fantasy, Marco develops his world so well that they fit in flawlessly with the more familiar technology.

The same is true of the landscape - Aramoor is a lush, tranquil kingdom while the Black City is an industrial monstrosity. The result is a world that is both recognizable and at the same time unfamiliar. The plot itself is reasonably straightforward yet is also filled with constant twists and turns. All of the main characters go through immense emotional trauma and it is impossible not to sympathize with them. It is even possible for the reader to feel sympathy with the apparent 'evil' characters, due to their desperate, pitiful need of life-sustaining drugs.

Marco's writing style is slick and his dialogue is fluid and well-constructed. The Jackal of Nar is an epic book (916 pages in all) and Marco has subsequently divided the novel into different sections, beginning each one with a journal entry by Richius Vantran. This is an excellent touch as it gives the reader a deeper insight into Richius's mind, where the true horror of war and loss can clearly be seen.

The Jackal of Nar is about war, peace, love, loss, courage and redemption. Marco's novel touches upon all of these themes and the reader cannot help but feel moved by the emotions of the characters and their actions. The novel opens with a burst of hedonistic action, then slows down for a while, only to explode again, giving the novel a certain pulse. Hundreds of men die, alliances are both formed and destroyed, and the very power of heaven is called upon. And in the middle of this is Richius Vantran, riddled with guilt, plagued by doubt, but ultimately unbroken.


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