The Sacred Throne Series
by Myke Cole
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 19, 2018
Addenda and edits on October 26 & 27, 2019
The Armored Saint / The Queen of Crows / The Killing Light
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The Armored Saint is the first novel in a new fantasy series, with the collective title of The Sacred Throne. It came out earlier this year (February), and the second one was published September 18. I don't have it yet, but it is very high on my wishlist. The third and concluding book is due late next year. Myke Cole is either currently active, or maybe ex-miltary, and has been an intelligence officer during portions of his service. All of his other fiction has a contemporary military focus, even if there is also an SF or fantasy element. This is something a bit different, although there is an action component, and my perception of what type of story it would be changed at least three times. That is in no way meant to be a negative statement. I adore stories that subvert my expectations, as long as the changes are logical, and an extension of the already established character dynamics and world-building.
As in a lot of epic fantasy, the setting is somewhat medieval. The protagonist, sixteen-year-old Heloise, lives in a small village with her parents. Other villagers are farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, with each family identified by their trade. Heloise's father is Samson Factor, his trade described by the #5 definition of the term: "a person who acts or transacts business for another; an agent." Most of the people are illiterate, so they hire Samson to record deeds and contracts, and keep family records of marriages, births, deaths, etc. Heloise's best friend Basina's father is Brandan Tinker. He makes metal tools and implements for others, and has an exclusive contract with The Order for weapons. His sons will follow in that trade when he passes. The land is ruled by the Emperor of the Sacred Throne, supposedly immortal after having died and been resurrected. Legend has it he defeated demons who tried to come into the world through the Veil, but he was successful in killing them and closing off the portal. His exploits are recorded in sacred texts known as The Writ. The Emperor's military troops, The Order, maintain discipline by rooting out any who practice wizardry, since that might provide the demons another portal into the world.
My first notion was there wouldn't be a fantasy element, that the stories of the Emperor and demons were just superstitious nonsense, a way for the ruling class to keep others in line. Similar to how in our world there was the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc. I suspected that it would be an alternate world tale of Heloise successful in debunking the myths, of defying The Order and the Emperor. Some of the people, Heloise included, don't subscribe to the threat of wizardry, but they have to refrain from saying anything about it publicly since that might direct suspicion onto them. Everyone knows what happens to anyone accused of being a wizard. One fantastical (or maybe just alchemical) element introduced early is the use of seethestone, which when combined with water creates a chemical reaction that produces heat, used to power various machines and devices built by Tinkers. That gave the story a bit of a steampunk vibe, but just barely. Once these plot points had been established, the story became more Heloise-centric, focusing on her internal struggles, her faith in The Writ and the Emperor contrasted with her atheistic attitude towards wizardry and demons. Also, her dilemma of not wanting to follow the path expected of women, to be subserviant to a husband, merely a housewife and producer of children. She doesn't want to marry, she wants to become Factor after her father, which might be a possibility since he does not have a son. I won't mention her most emotional quandary, because it would be a massive spoiler concerning what I consider to be the best written scenes.
When the fantasy element is finally established, it seems almost benign, nothing to fear, just simple magical feats without menace. I was taken by surprise when that notion was later subverted, and so was Heloise. Yet it afforded her the opportunity to prove her heroism. It may be a cliché, but this is an absolute emotional roller-coaster of a story. We go from Heloise's fear and anxiety concerning the basic nature of her world, move into a more serene contemplation of love and companionship with two wildly different people, back to fear when she realizes someone dear to her is actually a wizard. Then all of it comes crashing down with the realization that the demons are real. Not all of the individual components of the story have to make sense, since it is a fanstasy. All of that is just the framing device that tests the mettle of the characters, to propel them into facing their fears, to rise to the challenge of defending their home and their loved ones. Heloise makes quite a few mistakes along the way, battles are won but there are also losses. Her world is shattered in many ways, and she, her village, the entire country will never be the same. It would not be out of character for her to retreat into depression, to mourn her lost love. Instead, she seems prepared to carry the momentum forward to the next battle, and that is likely to come very soon.
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The Queen of Crows picks up almost immediately after the events in the first book. A couple of things I didn't mention in the section above include the fact that Heloise and her father defied The Order after they were forced to participate in a "Knitting" of another village, when they had to witness the murder of friends. A Knitting is the process by which The Order roots out wizardry (or at least alleged wizardry) by encircling a village and killing any that try to escape. Because of this, Heloise and her father are hidden by other villagers rather than being banished. Heloise is locked in Brandan Tinker's vault, where he keeps all the weapons he has been building for The Order. One of those items is a new war machine powered by seethestone. When The Order comes looking for her, Heloise hides inside the machine to avoid detection. Later, when the demon comes into the world, she again gets inside the machine, determines how it works, loads the seethestone into the engine, and uses it to kill the demon.
Heloise is hailed as a Palantine, a saint, their savior. Palantines were the Emperor's elite soldiers, ones who history says also slayed demons, yet died doing so. Heloise may be the only demon killer to have survived the ordeal, and yet she does not claim the honor. She thinks she was just extremely lucky, that there was nothing supernatural behind her efforts, but she can't convince Brandan Tinker of that. He continually calls her a Palantine, addresses her as "your eminence," and many others follow suit. There are a couple of villagers that don't agree, two men who might actually be guilty of tipping off The Order that Heloise and Samson were in hiding rather than having fled the village. Yet those two men stick with the others, since they realize just being associated with the other villagers might put them in jeopardy with The Order. They have little time to prepare since they are convinced The Order will be back quickly. They plan an ambush, which fails, then have to flee into the bogs and forests, with which they are familiar but The Order is not. In doing so they encounter a group of the Wandering People, whom everyone else identifies with the insulting slur of Kipti.
Heloise might not be a saint, a savior, yet she continually gains followers simply by being honest with them, trying to help everyone equally. She is convinced the Wandering People are not the heretics as they had been branded, that they can be allies in the fight against The Order. Surprising enough, a lot of the Wandering People agree to help her. Samson Factor, Brandan Tinker, and several other villagers were veterans of a previous war, not the one where the Emperor defeated the demons, but a later one against another kingdom to the west. The weapon used by their regiment was the pike, and they had a saying, "There are no heroes on the pike, we live or die together." Heloise takes the first part of that statement to heart. She is not the hero, she's just a victim of circumstances. And the second part of the statement means that to be successful they have to cooperate, have a common goal. She doesn't always have the answer, but is open to help from all the others, no matter if they are her own villagers, or from another village, or one of the Wandering People. She is even open to help from that other kingdom when they ride in to help defend against a siege from The Order. How that last alliance will work out will have to wait for the third book.
The first book had several good action sequences. This is almost non-stop action, and yet there is also time for quieter moments, wherein Heloise has to grapple with the heavy burden laid on her shoulders. She still mourns for her lost love, and while there may be hope for another, Heloise feels guilt about that hope when so many others are suffering. Also, she may not survive long enough for any of that to matter. I guess I visualized her war machine incorrectly. Based on the cover images I assumed it was much like a medieval knight's armor, but one that magnified the user's movements through the seethestone engine. Yet the body of it must be different, since there are several scenes in which others are able to reach between layers of the suit to touch her leg or arm, and once another person is able to climb inside with her, so it's obviously even bigger than I imagined. And not impervious either, since she is injured several times when a weapon penetrated a seam between components. By the end of this book Heloise has lost one hand, one eye, two teeth, and been stabbed close to the heart, even though that latter happened when she was outside her machine. She's still standing though, and continues to gain allies, even though some others have been lost. Can she still maintain her loyalty to the Emperor at the same time she fights The Order? She is convinced they have perverted his message, but I have a suspicion she may be disappointed if she ever encounters the Emperor himself. Is he even still alive, or are all the stories of him also lies and perversions? I've already started the third book, so I'll know soon enough I guess. Stay tuned.
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The Killing Light will be released in a little more than two weeks, November 12, but I got an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I've rated it slightly lower than the two previous books, but it is still recommended. My complaints have more to do with some cliché elements, and a few events that did not come as a surprise. Battles were won that literally defied logic, along with Heloise's multiple injuries which would likely have felled even the most accomplished soldiers. Perhaps there is something supernatural about her after all.
The alliances formed around Heloise don't last long. Somehow other demons have come into the world, and in the aftermath of battles with them certain factions begin to question Heloise's decisions. The numbers of her followers quickly diminshes, yet The Order's troops have fared no better, giving her an opportunity to press for a truce, a combination of forces to fight against the demons. If it wasn't for that alliance it is likely they would not have been able to enter the capital city, nor get inside the Emperor's palace. What they find there almost crushes their hopes, yet something is learned about a possible way to defeat the demons, although it means Heloise and a few of her guards must travel to another city to bring one of the Emperor's servants back to counter the demon forces.
The action is once again intense, but with some of those previously mentioned illogical results mitigating my investment. Remember that Heloise is just sixteen, she has lots of emotional baggage, along with strong reservations concerning the "truths" of her world. It's remarkable that anyone followed her into battle, and yet they do, even several whom had previously fought against her. Her faith in the Emperor and The Writ may be shattered, yet she witnessed a miracle of wizardry that defeated the demons. How can she use the new revelations to reform her concept of the world? She has lost all her family and many of her friends, yet the few that remain may be able to nurse her back to health and help her reshape her country into a more benevolent place. That's left as an exercise for the reader, since I am sure the trilogy completes Heloise's story. But it's not just her story. It's also about community and faith, cooperation or conflicts, with many following ancient ways simply because it is the status quo, it is all they know. Heloise wants everyone to join together, to reject the former rivalries, to be one people. I think that if anyone can do it, it's Heloise Factor.
I was lucky to get an e-book of the first title in one of Tor.com's monthly giveaways, borrowed the second from the libray, and got an ARC of the third, but I'm hoping that one day I can get them all in print. Maybe in a single volume since all are short by contemporary standards, in fact together they are no longer than the previous novel I read, Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. Again, this is recommended, whether you like action or just great characters, mythological creatures and fantastical elements or contemplations of love, friendships, and community. I need to check out Myke's earlier work, and look forward to whatever he comes up with next.
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