The Sacred Throne – I’m Putting It On A Pedestal, Try And Stop Me

I’m not usually the guy on here to write about fantasy, though I do love it. If you went through my history, you’d see I tend to talk more about science fiction. But once in awhile, some fantasy books come along that I have to talk about. As you can probably guess from the title, The Sacred Throne trilogy by Myke Cole is one such set of books. This story is an ambitious grimdark fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels through Cole’s loyalty to his characters and immersive worldbuilding. While I would like to hype it up more before diving in, the review is quite a long one, so we should just get started.

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The Sacred Throne trilogy is made up of the books The Armored Saint (previously reviewed by Andrew here), The Queen of Crows, and finally, the soon to be released The Killing Light. The story is centered on Heloise, whose life is thrown into turmoil when the Order arrives in search of a sorcerer. The Order is a group of religious fanatics who serve a Godlike Emperor. Their job is to make sure that demons do not take hold within the mortal realm, which happens when someone uses magic to any degree. The Order’s methods for keeping their world demon free would make the Spanish Inquisition squeal with glee. Heloise’s life starts to break down as she refuses to take part in an Order-commanded Knitting, a village-wide witch hunt, effectively refusing the Emperor’s decree. When the Order demands retribution for Heloise and her father’s actions, the town rallies around them in a small revolt. Heloise joins the fight and dons the Palatine armor, an armor reserved for those chosen by the Emperor himself, and helps to temporarily defeat the Order.

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The Queen of Crows takes place immediately following the events of the first book. Heloise is recovering from her wounds from the battle with the Order to find out that the Palatine armor (think of it as a steampunk mechanical suit) she had been wearing was left behind in order to save her life. Heloise and her village are taken in by the Travelling people (known to the villagers as the Kipti, or homeless), who promise to safeguard them within their roving caravan. The surviving brothers of the Order are regrouping while the village determines what to do next. The obvious choice is to invade another small village, recruit them to their cause, and prepare to be besieged by a larger army. I want to avoid too much plot detail, because Cole did such an amazing job with the pacing by slowly upping the ante with each battle and each book. There is a deliberate and realistic escalation with each conflict that hooked me everytime. A grimness infiltrated every aspect of the story, and created an atmosphere that filled each calm before the storm with dread. I’m not usually one for pop culture references, but the trilogy felt like the Battle for Helm’s Deep stacked on itself three times.

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To be a little more honest, I’ll say that the plot itself is a pretty standard “rebel against the current status quo” affair. Highlighting it, to me, doesn’t necessarily do the book a disservice, but I will say it’s not what hooked me into this trilogy. I’ll always be on board with “war against the crown” stories, but it takes a little pizzazz to make it feel new and fulfilling. That said, I think Cole did something special with The Sacred Throne. He built a fairly realized world within a short amount of time. He filled it with characters that felt so natural to their setting, it felt like reading a myth about a historical event. The brutality on display is stark and unforgiving, but Cole does a very good job not revelling in it. It’s a fact of life, and the characters who take it to the extremes see it as a duty, not a luxury, but it’s also inexcusable to people within the story. So I wanted to do a more thorough dive into what Cole does so uniquely within The Sacred Throne. I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as I can, but be aware that the events of The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows will be discussed.

The setting feels like the foundation for the rest of what I want to dig into. Cole has built a small but expanding world that is bleak as hell, but incredibly compelling. The drudgery of medieval life is apparent from the first page of The Armored Saint. He makes the dreadful mundanity feel real, as if everyone has their purpose ordained and that’s all they have to live for, especially amongst the peasants. On top of all that, though, Cole built a hierarchical society that feels suited to the world he has created. The power of the Emperor infests every interaction between his subjects and the Order. The language Cole uses throughout the series to define the different relationships between characters and how they view the world is meticulous and deliberate, heightening the divide between the people that populate the land. There is a maliciousness to the ideology that feels apparent from the beginning, wherein the people respect the power and good deeds of their godlike Emperor, but hate the Order, known as the Emperor’s right hand, for taking liberties to enforce his Writ. They rely on their interpretations of the Emperor’s words to bear the burden of the Order’s boot heel on their back, creating an inescapable cycle of violence. This is not only seen in the narrative but reinforced by sections of the Writ, and the journals of Samson Factor, Heloise’s father, that preface each chapter.

Where the setting really begins to pull weight, though, is when the rebellion begins. I cannot stress enough how much I love Cole’s portrayal of a peasant revolt. It feels unplanned, frightening, and as though it could collapse at any moment. Everything I listed before worms its way into how Heloise, and the people who follow her, battle against the Order. There is a subtle and distinct way the townspeople and Heloise differ in their perspectives. Heloise knows, and does not hesitate to mention, that they are actively fighting against the Order, regardless of how the Emperor may be influencing them. However, there are a lot of townsfolk– her father included– who believe that the Emperor’s light shines upon them, and if they can just prove that by fighting the Order, things could go back to the way they used to be. They continue to fight, but only because their faith is placed in the very man whose laws have sentenced them to death. This is evident in the townsfolk’s language surrounding their fight, about how they revere Heloise as an instrument of the Emperor, and how the Order is a perversion of the Writ. This is not a rebellion to most of them, but a testament to their Emperor’s commands and their need to serve him to the fullest.

The rebellion gets even more interesting as it becomes more of a coalition between Heloise’s village, the Travelling People, and eventually the army of the Red Lords. The ragtag rebellion slowly becomes a Revolution, with the different parties vying for a similar goal, but not the same one. Cole manages to make the bickering of these different parties not only realistic, but interesting and conflicted. There is an incredible sense of urgency; decisions have to be made on the fly, and some people may suffer for it. Issues were left unresolved at points because they did not have the time, or even the ability, to solve them. What I enjoyed so much about these councils and interactions is the characters’ individual and community biases were front and center. The language hinted at what individuals thought of each other based on the groups they were from, and how they could use each other to achieve their goals. The Revolution’s success was a ticking clock, but the parties involved could not relieve all their internal tensions prior to the big battle. However, there was a give and take, along with a slow and very unsteady recognition of each other’s humanity and purpose. It was a succinct snapshot of what an unplanned revolution might look like, amongst people who do not have the terminology to understand their needs, let alone the time.

I’ve refrained from talking about Heloise through most of the piece up until this point because to be honest, she feels set apart from everything I have discussed. She starts with an innate distaste for the Order that is stronger than the ambient mistrust her village shares. She is more openly defiant in front of them, and the Writ seems to hold no sway over her. She does not seem to harbor negative feelings towards the Emperor, but neither does she praise him in the ways her father and the others do. She talks about her deeds as things she has done, or actions the armor allows her to take, instead of as divine acts from the Emperor himself. I say all this because it feels a little dissonant, until you realize she does not belong in this world. There is no vocabulary in the book that describes it, but simply put, Heloise is a lesbian, something the Writ forbids. Thankfully, Cole is not subtle about it, but neither is he indulgent in ways other authors might be. It’s simply a part of her; it feels important to her but also incredibly dangerous to let others know her secret. It’s integral to her worldview in that even if she were able to get the Order off the village’s back and the status quo restored, her existence would be still be dreadful, so she fights with everything she can.

Heloise has a similar, if more complex, relationship with her village as well as with the rebellion. In some ways, she helps to foster the rebellion with her open acts of defiance, but she does not force the village into it. They hide her family from the Order of their own volition. Only when she emerges from the tinker’s shop inside the Palatine armor does the village begin to subconsciously alienate her. Her community instantly and reverently otherizes her as soon as she is able to use the armor. The way they talk about her is different, no matter how many times she tries to downplay her role. How they listen to her also changes, as her opinion becomes the will of the Emperor in their eyes. She becomes a symbol out of the desperation that she and her fellow villagers all feel. Meanwhile, her encounters with the Travelling People and eventually the Red Lords are vastly different from each other. They allow her to feel a sense of responsibility and all the good and bad that comes with it. In return, she engages with the communities on their own terms, learns their world views, and attempts to reconcile differences between them in order to maintain the alliance. Her otherness becomes a larger part of who she is, allowing her to navigate the space between.

Within that navigation, Heloise starts to grow and become an adult. Her relationship with herself is easily one of the more rewarding aspects of the book, as Cole really dives into introspection. Given that the books are on the shorter side, I imagine it’s pretty tough to fit in small moments for Heloise to think about who she is. Cole puts a lot of effort into relaying how Heloise really feels about everything around her, making these moments seamless with the rest of the story. The interactions she has with nearly every character feel important and have a heightened quality to them. Her inner voice is incredibly apparent, especially when dealing with her father and other villagers who consistently place her on a pedestal. Over time, this inner voice becomes more resonant with how she talks out loud, forming a more coherent whole. It feels like Heloise is literally reaching out through the armor she wears, testing people’s reactions to her ever more radical feelings. This is nicely paired with the fact that the armor does not protect her from everything. She is consistently wounded, and sometimes even maimed operating the machine in battle. As I said previously, Cole does not delight in this mayhem, making Heloise’s injuries feel doubly important as if to say, you cannot hide from the world no matter how powerful your armor. Over the course of the three books, Heloise takes this lesson to heart, and it’s incredibly heart wrenching.

I had never read any of Myke Cole’s work before, and before reading this Andrew told me “Cole never does anything by halves.” I have to say, I have never heard more succinct or accurate description of an author, and The Sacred Throne highlights it brilliantly. Everything in the series feels honed to precision from the setting, to the character work, to the themes. It’s clear that a lot of work and love went into these books, and it doesn’t feel like a miracle that it paid off. Even weeks after reading them, I can’t stop thinking about them. My mind feels like a crow picking at a beautiful bounty of a corpse, always finding fresh little morsels to satiate my curiosity. So if you would, please come take part of this feast and enjoy all that The Sacred Throne has to offer.

Ratings:
The Armored Saint – 7.5/10
The Queen of Crows – 8.5/10
The Killing Light – 9.0/10
-Alex

The Armored Saint – Big Power In A Small Package

armoredsaint_revI have been reading a number of short books this month, and it’s making it fairly easy to compare and contrast their strengths. Among the short novels I read, I found a dark horse that I want to draw some attention towards: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole. Some of you might know Myke from his Control Point series, a story about soldiers with superpowers. I really enjoyed Control Point, and Myke’s writing in general, but the subject of the books was not my forte. So I was thrilled to see that he has gone in a new direction and written a story I would describe as part slice of life, part low fantasy, and part Warhammer 40K.

As mentioned, The Armored Saint is a bit of a genre mash up. The book follows the story of Heloise, a young woman trying to get by in a fairly messed up fantasy world. Like many fantasy landscapes, The Armored Saint’s has been ravaged by demons and sorcerers. Out of control magic has wasted away the landscape, and mages are targeted on sight by everyone to prevent additional damage to the surroundings. To deal with the possibility of rogue magic users, the world has an order of inquisitors who ride around and put down those accused of magic use. The plot revolves around Heloise and an interaction she has with one of these roving bands of inquisitors, and the fallout from this interaction. The plot isn’t the powerhouse of the book. In fact, once or twice the plot could be annoying – like when it drew out the power armor reveal that is both in the cover art and title of the book.

However, while the plot might not be my favorite, the book scores unbelievably high marks in character and atmosphere. Let’s start with the characters. Myke Cole’s prose, and vivid writing, does an incredible job establishing the characters in a very short time and draws you straight into their struggles. Character emotions feel real and raw and create a very tense atmosphere where you are concerned for the fate of all of them. On top of this, the crown jewel of the book might be its atmosphere. Heloise is a fairly young, innocent, and naive girl (at least initially). She is thrust into several situations she does not understand, but is smart enough to sense that something about them is off and to be terrified of them. This emotion is mimicked by the book itself as you read it. As you progress through The Armored Saint, you will get the distinct feeling that something is off. Things seem like they are going ok, but you will have this sinking feeling in your stomach that something is about to go very badly. When these terrible moments reveal themselves they capitalize on the build up brilliantly and make for some truly memorable scenes.

The Armored Saint packs a lot of raw emotion and storytelling in a tiny package. While it falls slightly short on story, it is an experience I would recommend to anyone and is one of the best short books I have read this month. Myke Cole is an extremely talented writer and continues to prove he can knock it out of the park with whatever he sets his mind to write.

Rating: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Stories From Comicon: Authors Are Fans Too

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New York Comicon has come and gone this past weekend, and what an experience it was. If you ever get a chance to go to a Comicon I highly recommend it. This was my first, and I only went because I live in NYC and a few authors I wanted to meet were supposedly going. What I did not know is that the publishers of the fantasy and science fiction world turn out in force, with an army of famous writers under their wings. Authors are my heroes. The books I read when I was younger were a large force in shaping who I am today, and I have undying respect for their creators. As such it was a little daunting to realize I was going to meet so many of them at once. However, my fears were baseless and it was a tremendously fun experience. I met more than 20 famous authors; sometimes just having casual conversation, sometimes getting books signed, and sometimes squealing with glee. However, for me New York Comicon was also a deeply thoughtful time, where I realized with renewed fervor why I love authors and reading. Authors are celebrities, heroes, and great people. Every single interaction with every author I met was positive, but I want to highlight two to give you an idea of what I am talking about.

                 

First let me tell you about Seth Dickinson, author of the brand new The Traitor Baru Cormorant. If you somehow have not heard about this book yet, know that it is being widely regarded as a masterpiece and that Seth is one of the newest great talents in fantasy. While I have not had a spare moment to buy and read the book myself yet, I was frothing at the mouth with excitement at a chance to meet him and talk. Unfortunately for me Seth was at NYCC on a day I wasn’t, so my chances seemed very low. That was until I ended up next to him in a line at the Tor booth waiting to
get a signed copy of
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente. As I mentally rallied myself to talk to him, Sam Sykes (author of City Stained Red and other great books) walked up to us and began one of the most endearing conversations I have ever witnessed in my entire life. It went something like this:

Sam: … Seth, what are you doing?

Seth: What, I am waiting in line to get Catherynne’s autograph! Why is that weird?

Sam: Seth, you are a Tor author, she is literally your coworker. You don’t need to wait in this line, go to the front.

Seth: No man, everyone here is a fan of Catherynne and just as important as me. Everyone waited for my signing yesterday, and I want to do the same.

Sam: No, you are going to the front of the line.

It was at this point that Sam dragged Seth out of the line towards the front as the rest of the line cheered encouragement and laughed. This was just one example I saw of the many authors who are massive fantasy fans themselves, and do not place themselves higher than other readers.

              

The second really fantastic example I have of this is the lovely Myke Cole, author of Control Point, Gemini Cell, and other books. When I first got into NYCC I was overwhelmed by the number of things to do. However, I noticed Myke was doing a book signing right at the start of the day, and decided to run over and get in line to meet him while I figured out what else I wanted to do. While I was in line to meet Myke I noticed that an actor I like was also doing an autograph session… for $80 a signing. I love the actor’s work, but this seemed really steep to me for what was likely going to be a few seconds with the star. As I was pondering this, I reached the front of the line and got to meet Myke Cole. Myke asked me how I was doing, what my plans for Comicon were, where I got my jacket because he liked it, where I was from, and a bunch of other earnest questions while he signed my book. He also answered all of my questions about him, and by the time he finished signing he had me feeling like we were friends. For someone who is a fan it was a heartwarming experience, especially in light of how much other celebrities were charging to just get their signature. But this wasn’t even the end of my Comicon experience with Myke.

I ended up running into him again at an author/fan meet and greet at the end of the weekend. It was a small gathering with a slew of authors such as Terry Brooks, Naomi Novik, Alan Smale, and Michael Sullivan. This gathering was one of the most inception-y things I have ever experienced. While I freaked out as I got to talk to Myke again, I saw him freak out as he got to meet Alan Smale, who I saw freak out as he got to meet Terry Brooks, who I saw freak out because he got to meet Naomi Novik, etc etc. It was just a room full of people gushing happiness as they got to meet their idols. As I continued to talk with Myke he said something that really stuck with me: “At the end of the day, everyone is just a fan. No matter how famous someone get they will always be a lover of the genre, it is why we start writing in the first place.”

The love of reading science fiction and fantasy permeated every single person I talked to this weekend, and it was a uniting force across the entire event. Whether it was the Del Ray editor talking about how how lucky he is to be paid to draw maps, or authors asking me if it is ok to pause a conversation because they see another author autograph whose autograph they want, or getting over 30 free books because people just wanted their work to be read, Comicon helped me find new levels of love for the authors who are my heroes and I cannot wait to go back every year.

Brilliance and Shadow Ops – The Search For The Perfect Mutation

When I was a kid I loved the X-Men. They were my favorite superheroes and I watched all the cartoons and read all the comics. Now many years later, that love has in no way diminished. In fact it has likely grown. So when I discovered multiple books about mutants I was very excited. The book series I discovered are Shadow Ops by Mike Cole and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The books focus on very different elements of mutations and society, and both come away with different flavors of story.

Lets start with Shadow Ops. The book is about a world where when mutations start occurring, all of the mutants are either co-opted into the military or killed in order to protect the normal population. Mutations come in two groups, acceptable and forbidden. The acceptable mutations are elemental magic (fire, earth, air, water) and the unacceptable tend to deal with some weirder things such as necromancy, and making portals. Our protagonist is a military mutant hunter who manifests one of the forbidden mutations, and to deal with going from hunter to hunted. These books jump head first into the human vs. mutant theme with a military flavor. It is very clear from the onset that Mike Cole has some familiarity with armed services and the book blends mutation and military fiction very well. I have no experience with any armed forces, but I still found the book very accessible and interesting. I have found there is a tendency in military books for authors to get bogged down in very minute detail of army procedure, which I felt this book avoided for the most part. The real pull of Shadow Ops is that Myke Cole made a world that blends military and mutation really well. The army and the mutants both feel like they are equal forces to be respected in the books and gives them both equal time in the spotlight. Each book in the trilogy follows a different protagonist as you get to see both different mutations and jobs within the army structure. While I had a few problems with pacing, the books left me very satisfied and I definitely recommend.

The second mutant series I looked into is a bit weirder. Brilliance, on top of having a gorgeous cover, is another story about mutants: but not your standard variety. In the world of Brilliance, mutations don’t give you superpowers. Instead they make you really good at things like accounting. Now if you are like me you are thinking “What? That sounds super boring.”, but bare with me. Brilliance is a different kind of story than Shadow Ops. Mutants in Brilliance gain powers like being able to think in computer code, making them the best programmers in the world, or being able to intuitively understand cause and effect in human actions, making some people super detectives. Marcus Sakey created a world where 1% of the population is making 99% of the rest of the world obsolete in a non-violent manner and it leads to some truly fascinating scenarios. One example is one of the mutants is able to understand the patterns of stocks and bonds and as a result amasses hundreds of billions of dollars on the stock market; essentially crashing the economy. All of these mutants change the world around them in thought provoking ways, while unintentionally ruining the lives of 99 people around them. This inevitably leads to conflict between mutants and humans and the book follows the conflict as it grows. For someone who is looking for an interesting take on superpowers or mutations I highly recommend.

While I enjoy both of these mutant series a lot, I find myself still desiring something more. Both of the stories focus on the human vs. mutant element which is the standard go to in mutant stories. I would love to see a series in the future that focused more on the intense mutant on mutant rivalries that occur in the X-Men between Magneto and Prof X. The fact that these two series have come out recently, and done so well, gives me hope that new authors might come up with ideas for mutants I haven’t even thought of. Regardless, I recommend both of these series and encourage anyone looking for a good time to pick them up.

Shadow Ops: 7.0/10

Brilliance: 7.0/10

P.S. As a bonus, another good mutant/superpower book that I have already written about is Vicious by V. E. Schwab. If you are looking for even more mutant/superpower action you can find it here.