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Tyrants and Kings by John Marco

Review by Louis

The Tyrants and Kings trilogy consists of:
The Jackal of Nar
The Grand Design
The Saints of the Sword

This is a pretty hefty series, with the first book weighing in at just over 900 pages in paperback and the other two being somewhat slimmer at 750 or so each. Needless to say, it took quite a while to get through the whole lot. This wasn't helped by the fact that when it comes down to it, the series just ain't that interesting. If you're just looking for a quick sentence for good or bad, that's it. Half decent series, but far from great.

If you want to know why, well, I'll try and tell you. I guess I should say the good points before I say what I didn't like, since I can get a little carried away with criticism at times. He writes a pretty decent plot, Iíll give him that. *g* Itís interesting, quite intricate most of the time, at least in the first two books, and itís pretty well thought out it seems like. There are some really novel variations on standard Fantasy themes and settings. At times the characters are good, and there is some intriguing development of certain characters over the course of each individual book, and in one case, the whole series. There was something there anyway, which kept me reading, and made me read all three books, despite the fact that I was less than awestruck. I suppose part of it is just a case of the fact that I do love Fantasy and generally, Iíll read most Fantasy for the very sake of it. Plus, it is pretty decent, so I just didnít think it was bad enough not to read.

Now, conscience assuaged, I can tear into it properly. It took me absolutely ages to get through these books, and I had to take a break after each one, by reading at least one other different book. Usually, if Iím reading a series, I want to get the next one right away and read it to find out what happens, enjoy the characters and world and everything some more. That was far from the case here. I had the second and third books together for some time before I got round to starting the second, and I read at least one, possibly two, books in between them. I just had very little motivation to read the rest. I still wanted to, cos I sort of wanted to see what happened, find out about the characters, and so on, but there was no immediate need like I would expect.

Like I said before, the world is pretty well set up, and interesting to read about, and Marco uses a lot of the space he has created. Quite often an author will tell us about whole countries and swathes of land which we never hear mentioned more than in passing, or by looking at the map. Mostly this wasnít the case here. The action takes place in multiple locations, with good exploration of each place, its peculiarities of culture, environment and everything. Even when he doesnít actually have action happening somewhere, he might have a character from there so we hear a little about it at least. However, there are still places that are talked about a few times, and which we might wish to know more about, but we never do. Plus, one of the things that bothered me at times, is partly due to his tendency to include so many different locales. More than once, the action follows the main characters far too closely. What I mean is, he sets up some major problems in one part of the world, gets us interested in what is going on there, and next thing we know the immediate situation has been resolved, the main characters have perhaps moved somewhere else and that place is as good as forgotten about. The problems there donít go away just because one person, no matter how important, happens to leave. I found myself wondering the whole way through the third book what the heck happened to the set of major problems we were told about at the start while the action had been switched to somewhere else. Itís as if Marco wants us to believe everything in the rest of the world freezes as soon as his attention leaves that part of the plot. Makes it eminently simpler for the author Iím sure, but it was very distracting, for me at least, and not exactly realistic.

Another problem, in a sort of similar vein is the bodycount. Itís not that these books are really blatantly violent the whole way through. Now that I think of it actually, there are a lot of violent scenes and an awful lot of deaths. At least to me though, it didnít feel like that bothered me. The fact of the character deaths bothered me more than the manner of them really. A long list of characters we are introduced to will die at some point, no matter how much insight we may have gotten into them, how likable they are or how central they have been to preceding parts of the plot. This sort of necessitates a corresponding high rate of introduction of new characters. Sometimes this can be a good thing. It seems pretty brave to introduce at least five or six new pretty important characters in each book, but in this case it disrupts continuity. It relates to the changing of locations I think. In one way, itís good since we exposed to a very wide range of perspectives and everything, but again, itís distracting. I didnít enjoy getting to know characters, even gradually seeing changes in their outlook, starting to enjoy them more and more as I saw more of them, only to have them die and then have to start again with another cast at the start of the next book, usually with little or no mention of the previous one from then on.

Normally, in any series, and especially a trilogy, you expect a large amount of continuity, and for one story to be basically told over three books. At least you expect an ending to the trilogy which is in keeping with the whole series and for it to be mostly tied up and resolved by then. Iím not talking bows and ribbons and everyone living peacefully in everlasting harmony, I hate that sort of thing. I am talking a satisfying conclusion to each book, but a large amount of continuity at the same time. Each book should, generally, constitute a different part of the overall story in most cases. With this trilogy it feels awfully like each book constitutes a whole separate set of issues and a separate story. This links into the fact of the differing characters and all that from before. It feels like each new book is a new start, not a continuation of what has gone before. The weird thing is that a substantial amount of stuff does run over from one book to the next. Itís hard to explain this at all, and especially since I am trying to keep this spoiler free, but thatís what it felt like to me. Each book is a whole story on its own, and I had little or no impulse to find out what happened next when I finished each one. He avoids leaving a total massive cliffhanger as some authors can do, which is probably good. Some conclusion is good, but he does it way too much. What it felt like to me on finishing the trilogy was that I had simply read about a certain set of events in this place, no real difference to any others that have happened before or may happen after. It feels like all the effort portrayed likely wasnít for much point. In one way, itís an original way to write a Fantasy story. Thereís none of the usual inference that the events being portrayed are totally unique and nothing like this has happened before. I was about to say that there are no prophecies or saviours of the world or anything, and very little magic. I just remembered though, that there are saviour type religious figures and there is magic. Itís just that itís not written as it usually is or something.

Iím getting increasingly confused with what I want to say about this series now. Itís a hard one to quantify. There are so many aspects to it that feel like they should make it really good, but it never gets there. It has lots of things I usually would enjoy, but I just never actually enjoyed it. Thereís a persistent thread of tragedy right through it, which has something to do with this. Very little even slightly good comes without a massive price in this world. Itís bleak, harsh, violent, tragic and ultimately, I just couldnít feel _good_ when reading it. There is also some pervasive drug use and some very unpalatable topics, such as genocide involved at different points. Itís certainly interesting, and it gives an extremely good view of all sides. This sort of book is valuable for itís uniqueness I guess, but it is not something I would go through again very soon. The whole thing was a struggle, and for me, itís just too damn depressing.

This series reminds me of aSoIaF in a major way, but it isnít as good. In some ways it possesses the qualities everyone seems to like about GRRM more than he does. It is very gritty and if you dislike the idea of good and evil in books then this is the other extreme. Some people like to say this way of writing is more valid because itís more Ďrealisticí. Personally, when Iím reading Fantasy, I donít think I can handle that much pervasive, unrelenting pessimism.


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