by John Marco

Bantam Spectra


660pp/$14.95/March 1999

The Jackal of Nar

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In recent years, the epic fantasy seems to have made an enormous comeback, in no small part due to the "Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan. Other notable authors who have turned their attention to this subgenre, resulting in lengthy multi-volume series, include Terry Brooks, J.V. Jones, "Robin Hobb," Stephen Donaldson, and the authors whose work appeared in last year's major anthology, Legends. The field, therefore, is certainly thriving and it can be legitimately asked if SF needs yet another series of epic fantasies, such as John Marco offers with his debut novel, The Jackal of Nar, the first book in the "Tyrants and Kings" series.

Marco drops the reader right into the war between the Empire of Nar and the loose confederation of warlords known as Lucel-Lor. The majority of novel is told through the eyes of Prince Richius Vantran of Aramoor, who was sent by Emperor Arkus to defeat the rebellious zealots in the Dring Valley. These zealots, known as Drol, are the epitome of evil incarnate to Richius and his followers, and the Aramooran warriors have no compunctions about killing them. However, Marco introduces the first of his moral ambiguities by having Richius and his companions question the motives and character of their own emperor as well as their enemies. This questioning of values in repeated throughout the novel as Marco reveals more of the driving motivations behind his characters, both those allied with or standing against Richius.

At the beginning of the novel, the plot seems reasonably straight-forward. It is Richius's job to halt the rebels' advance in the Dring Valley and support the Daegog, the hereditary ruler of Lucel-Lor. As the novel progresses, Marco throws in several curves which mean that the reader can't grow to comfortable with any particular characters or situation. A comrade today could mean an enemy tomorrow and a rise in fortune could as quickly be balanced by a fall from grace.

Richius's own circumstances are further convoluted when he saves a young woman, Dyana, from rape only to earn the lady's enmity. Richius and Dyana are linked in several ways, not least of which is Dyana's betrothal to Tharn, the leader of the zealots of Lucel-Lor. Even as Richius attempts to aid Dyana and her people, he finds that he too has the baser instincts which he so abhors in his traditional enemies.

Marcos's characters are, of necessity, complex. All of them, from Emperor Arkus to Richius's friend Dinadin Lotts to Tharn, have their own motivations which seems reasonable when viewed through their eyes. While their ambitions do have selfish goals, they just as frequency are trying to do what is right for the world around them. At their worst, neither Arkus nor Tharn come close to the unremitting evil of Sauron. Because of this, the reader can not be assured that any particular villain will remain thus throughout the novel.

Marco proves himself adept at providing the reader with vivid depictions of the world of Nar. The forests and marshes come to life as he describes Richius's attempts to penetrate them. Nar City, the capital of Emperor Arkus, is brilliantly depicted as evokes the worst industrial cities from earlier in the century (which, Isaac Asimov once wrote, were Tolkien's inspiration for Mordor). However, when Marco turns this ability toward the description of violence, he frequently takes it a little too far, providing gruesome details of the war in which Nar and Lucel-Lor are involved, many of which occur in the opening pages of the novel. However, if the reader can put these grisly passages aside, The Jackal of Nar provides a new dimension to epic fantasy.

Although Marco describes the novel as the first book of "The Tyrants and Kings" series, the book stands on its own very well, with nearly all the major plots tied up before the final page. While Marco makes it clear where the second book will begin, the plot twists in The Jackal of Nar indicate that the second book will be entirely unpredictable, especially since most of the plots in the first book have been satisfactorily resolved.

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