So here today, I bring the conclusion of my journey into the Sword and the Staff trilogy. It wasn't the conclusion I was expecting, but it offered a lot of food for thought, and a few good pointers on what makes--or breaks--a climax.
If you haven't read reviews for A Cast of Stones (Book 1) or The Hero's Lot (Book 2), feel free to get caught up with the above links. It might make it easier to follow the story-line in today's review. :)
Errol and his friends return to the capital city of Illustra after completing their mission to find the compromised church official, Saron Valon. But instead of resting on their laurels and being hailed as heroes, they have to roll up their sleeves and get to work again. With the king dead, Duke Weir makes a grab for the throne. The church is thrown into turmoil when Martin brings back the news that their age-long tradition of casting lots is not the only way to know Deas's will. Errol and Liam know that one of them must die to restore the barrier holding back the evil from Illustra--and yet, there might not be time to figure out which one.
With enemies closing in from all directions, Adora, Erroll, and Martin split off in three directions to accomplish three key missions for the saving of Illustra. Martin goes to secure an alliance with a hostile tribe, hoping to give Illustra an increased fighting force against the evil maluses and Merakhi. Adora journeys to the land of church outcasts that they discovered in The Hero's Lot--a nation willing to ally and fight with Illustra if a person of royal blood will come in person to reinstate their social status. Erroll journeys to bring the lost book of the Magis back to the church, so they can find out how to truly know Deas. And this time he is not under compulsion--but his continued sacrifice is so great that it is hard for his friends to let him go.
Darkness closes in. Missions need to be accomplished. With enemies swarming over the land, streams of refugees pour into the capital city, bringing tales of horrible attackers and the added threat of famine. The church must find out the will of Deas on whether Erroll or Liam is to be the savior of their people. But though they have cast the question again and again, the lots continually fail, leaving a even draw between the two names. Archbishop Canon dies. With a nation surrounded, a leaderless church, and impending destruction, Martin and Luis decide that unless they can find a decisive answer to their question, they will send out both Errol and Liam to do battle.
And then the answer reveals itself as to which young man will lay down his life to be the savior of his people.
The romance element improved more and more as the series went along. Carr gradually put it in with a lighter touch, and though I still wasn't completely endorsing it by the end, I was satisfied with how far he had come. The violence didn't improve. The maluses (evil spirits) and the numerous crush and stab wounds got a bit much; even some of the spiritual difficulties the characters had could have been put in with a little less intensity. Errol's and Martin's spiritual doubts were realistically written, but they also made me struggle too, and there were so many things going on I couldn't remember the way Carr resolved them.
Rohka's characterization carries strong all the way to the end of the trilogy. Wonderful! Aside from Errol, she ranked right up there among my favorite characters. She was strong, unique, interesting, and a well-rounded woman. Adora suffered a little the more capable she got. While she wasn't blatantly feministic, she rested on her decision-making powers a bit too much. Liam, though perfect as ever, received some excellent character development and even a surprising twist in the climax--and I enjoyed that. Martin, Luis, Cruk, Merodach, and Rale were all welcome additions, beautiful sidekicks, and well-written. And Errol continued to grow all the way to the end. I've rarely seen a perfect character arc in a trilogy--but I think his wins hands-down.
A few characters and plots seemed to be poorly resolved. A couple of new characters were hailed as long-lost friends when I had no idea who they were; that threw me for a loop, because I kept trying to figure out if I had forgotten them, or if they were brand-new. Pater Antil's plot was a bit shallow and under-developed, especially at its conclusion. Some of the plots were resolved by characters remembering long-lost memories from their childhood that were huge give-away points to them, but inaccessible to the reader until the moment the character produced them. Also, I thought a favorite character's death at the end, however grievous, seemed to have little point in it. Then again, there was another favorite character that would have brought the book to a whole new level if he had died.
The resolution of the plot of the failed cast of stones was excellent--why it failed, and what the ramifications were. The plotting and tension in the beginning chapters of the book were absolutely fantastic, with tight action and focus. Also, the plot of the Judica's search to find the lost book of the Magis and correct church heresies was great as well. I loved the way Carr incorporated church heresy, church error, and church repentance. A very strong theme, and since that's one of the main sub-plots, it was an important one to get right. Bravo to Carr for writing it so well!
That being said, there were two rather prominent defects that disappointed me in his conclusion. (And no, that doesn't mean it's a tragedy. I have no objection to tragedies, and sometimes find them more rewarding than happy endings.) My objections had more to do with excellence that I thought the book came just shy of reaching.
Number one, Carr made the mistake of reusing main plotlines. Book 2 focused on a long journey, and then book 3 starts with three new journeys from different points-of-view to collect important artifacts for the final battle. The tension doesn't keep up because you know there are only so many journeys the characters can go on before they're not going to be killed by the people trailing them. Book 3 would have been more effective focusing on battles and defense. After Carr's careful and excellent foreshadowing of some future battle in books 1 and 2, he spends 350 pages getting ready for it in book 3, and the last 100 pages actually fighting it. Rather disappointing to have such a small return after a lot of promise.
The second problem I had was that throughout the series, the reader was intimately connected with Errol's emotions and struggles, and in the last chapter Carr took that connection away. We've bled with Errol, overcome drink with him, faced betrayal and doubt and shame with him, and basically followed his whole thought process in planning how to save Illustra. Errol doesn't hide things from the reader. Then in the last chapters, the author suddenly switches from plain speaking to words with double meanings to get a final moment of suspense and grief out of the reader. I don't mind an author hiding details; it can be very effective and suspenseful when the author faces off with the reader to see who can figure things out first. But I do mind when an author switches from one style to the other at the very last minute so the reader loses connection with the characters. Frankly, I felt like it was done to coerce my reaction, and there wasn't enough balm afterwards to salve my wounded pride and rescue the tale. ;)
Some of the things I didn't care for may have arisen because I had to read Book 3 so quickly after Book 2. Ideally I would have spaced them out a bit. But I think a trilogy should be able to stand strong even if read all at once. All this considered, though, I'm definitely going to be reading A Draw of Kings again. I suspect that a good deal of my disappointment and criticisms may be eradicated in a second read, so if I find my opinion takes a 180 swing I might pop in and update about it in future.
Even though the third book wasn't my favorite, that still doesn't damage the series in my mind. Errol is a fantastically written hero, one of the better and complex ones I've seen come out of the writing industry recently. Though the main plot of saving Illustra fell somewhat flat, the characters were so rich, the main character was so engaging, and the plot of casting lots was so strong, that they saved the trilogy. Carr writes Christian fantasy in a clearly Christian manner, with a careful eye to literary excellence. It's Christian fantasy that goes surprisingly deep into the culture of his people and the development of his themes. Good and evil are clearly defined--and yet characters have to struggle to overcome weaknesses in a real way that is uplifting to the reader. It's not unduly preachy, nor does it flirt with compromise. Carr has a happy balance between his message and his story.
A Cast of Stones is one of my favorite modern fantasy books. The Hero's Lot was also enjoyable. A Draw of Kings I have a couple of rather large bones to pick with, but that won't stop me from coming back again. Errol and Co. are good friends of mine now, and they have deservedly won their place in my top queue of favorite literary characters. Check this out, folks. A new Christian fantasy trilogy well worth your attention. And if you read them, I would love to hear what you think!
*This book was given to me for free by Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.*