The Jackal of Nar, John Marco’s debut novel, is the first book in a completed fantasy trilogy, Tyrants and Kings. It is followed by The Grand Design and concluded with The Saints of the Sword. The Jackal of Nar was unevenly paced, too long, and had a rather stupid main character, yet in spite of that I did find this character-driven novel enjoyable once it hit its stride, particularly for some of the secondary characters.
The technologically advanced empire of Nar is at war with its neighbor Lucel-Lor, led by a powerful magic user said to be blessed by his gods. Prince Richius Vantran of Nar, known to his enemies as Kalak (“The Jackal”), is leading the fight to keep a strategic location from being overrun by enemies. This is a losing battle, especially since the King of Aramoor (Richius’s father), refuses to send soldiers or food in spite of the Emperor’s will that he do all he can to aid the war. Even with their war machines, Richius and his men are near defeat until Blackwood Gayle appears and joins the battle. Although he is on the same side as Richius, Gayle is his bitter enemy and Richius is angered by the victory celebration in which Gayle’s men raid a village and Gayle attempts to rape a young woman. Richius saves the young woman and refuses further assistance from Gayle.
Later, Richius and one of his men take a trip to the nearby town and once again Richius encounters Dyana, the young woman he saved from Gayle. In spite of Richius’s heroics, Dyana despises him since he is the Jackal – but Richius believes Dyana to be the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and is quite obsessed with her. Abandoned by her family, Dyana is now working as a prostitute to earn money and Richius cannot help but purchase a night with her. Later, Richius regrets this and tries to make it up to her. He finds out she was betrothed to Tharn, the leader of Lucel-Lor, and is trying to escape his desperate search for her. Richius tries to protect her and she agrees to go to Nar with him, but she is lost to him in a magical storm created by Tharn – and he cannot forget her.
The Jackal of Nar is often labeled as “military fantasy,” but it did not primarily focus on the warfare, although there was a lot of blood and death. It was somewhat about the politics of the kingdoms, but mostly about the character of Richius. Each section of the book begins with an excerpt from his journal. In the very first 4 pages of the book, he is shown to be a very reflective man attempting to understand the world around him. After working with a member of the Triin race, he has discovered they are just like humans and plans to teach his father this when he gets home. In the beginning, I liked his character because I do like reading about people who can change their beliefs when presented with evidence that the world does not fall into the neat little package they always thought it did. Richius seemed like an overall good guy who tried to do the right thing whether this was taking care of the men under him or preventing Gayle from harming the very people they were supposed to be struggling to protect. He was supposed to be smart, he was supposed to be wonderful at military strategy, but he made so many stupid decisions that I found it hard to connect with him when I really wanted to yell at him for being an idiot. The root of much of Richius’s foolishness was his feelings for Dyana, so I did not find it completely unrealistic since he was one of those people who follows his heart instead of his head – I just couldn’t particularly care about a character whose only major flaw seemed to be moronic decision-making.
As Richius’s obsession, Dyana was an important character but she was also one I never really liked. The whole relationship never rang true to me since Dyana seemed to have stopped hating Richius a little too quickly to be believable. Although he was being very kind to her, she still loathed him after he prevented her imminent rape so I would expect it to take a very long, long time for her to even get to an average level of abhorrence for the man.
Because of this, I found many of the secondary characters far more interesting than Richius or Dyana, particularly Tharn and Voris, the war-leader from Lucel-Lor who first dubbed Richius as “The Jackal.” Tharn was a very gray character who initially appeared corrupt but had motivations behind most of his actions that made him seem at least somewhat sympathetic. Even the horrific action of making Dyana go with him was at least within the realms of culturally acceptable since the entire Triin race did not believe women had any rights. As Tharn’s betrothed, Dyana was his possession as far as he was concerned since that is what he had been raised to believe. (It was fairly late in the book when I came to see Voris as an interesting character so I’m going to avoid discussing him for fear of entering spoiler territory.)
Many of the characters had both good and bad traits, with even some of the more evilly bent characters having valid reasons for their actions. There was still one cookie cutter black-hearted villain, though. Blackwood Gayle never showed any redeeming features and just seemed to be a bad guy because that’s just how he was.
This has been a hard review for me to articulate since I felt that the book had a lot of flaws yet I enjoyed reading it anyway due to the fact that most of the characters were not black or white. The beginning was stilted and a slow, and there were times when I felt it dragged in the middle, but there were also quite a few times where I found myself saying I’d just read one more chapter, then saying it again after reaching the end of that chapter. The end is definitely better than the beginning and The Jackal of Nar is a solid first novel.