Talion: Revenant by Michael Stackpole

February 1, 2011 at 3:15 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Talion: Revenant was a book I really liked when I first read it, but that was back when I was in high school. Deciding to reread it now, I felt a little apprehension. It’s always disconcerting to revisit a book and have a totally different reaction. We like to think of ourselves as being constant, yet this is one case where we obviously are not: the book doesn’t change, so if the opinion is different years later, that’s down to the reader.

Talion: Revenant is about a man named Nolan who works as a Talion Justice. The Talions are an interesting institution. At one time they were the administrative, judicial, and enforcement apparatus for an empire, but that empire fell long ago. The Talion organization survived, remaining aloof from the various successor nations and serving as an international peacekeeping agency. Most Talions are soldiers of one sort or another, working to stabilize the international order by training the armies of the post-Empire nations up to some minimum standard (presumably in exchange for payment that funds the Talion administration as a whole, although if that was directly spelled out I missed it). The exceptions are those of the Justice division. Like a fantasy FBI, they rove the countryside enforcing the common law of the old empire, usually working alone. Although generally a Justice is just an ordinary person whose authority is recognized by most nations, he or she does have a slightly magical sword and a tattoo that can remove a soul from a body in a particularly feared sort of execution. I don’t remember it bothering me originally, but now the thought of lone people roaming the countryside acting as judge, jury, and executioner sounds, ah, problematic. There are a couple checks on their authority: first, they have to report in detail to the head of the Justice division, but second and more importantly, the tattoo is tied to a ritual that supernaturally kills anyone who acts unjustly. If that still makes you feel uneasy, well, this is a book that questions how to properly administer justice, but not what justice is.

The book is structured so that “present day” chapters of the adult Nolan at work as a Justice are interleaved with scenes from his childhood training. At first, these training scenes mainly provide a colorful background, but eventually it turns out Nolan’s mission in the present will force him to face demons from his past and it all comes together. The whole thing is told in a first person narrative that is mildly didactic in its quieter moments (this is one of those fantasy novels where the protagonist takes the time to explain details about magic, culture, and so forth as they are encountered in the narrative) and choreographist when the fighting starts.

So is it any good? Well, not everything about it works. The childhood training scenes feel a little hazy and indistinct, with only three other students are given any characterization. It’s not Stackpole’s fault, but a year after this book was published, the first Harry Potter was published in the UK. While the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter books leaves a lot to be desired, the early books provided–and set future expectations for–a depth to the fantasy school experience that Talion: Revenant can’t hope to match with only half its narrative. There is also a little bit of a Mary Sue issue with many of these scenes as the teenage Nolan constantly performs amazing feats that outdo anyone in the history of the training system. Some justification for this is provided (Nolan came unusually late to Justice training so he thinks outside the box) but it gets to be a little much. Luckily, it’s counterbalanced by the adult Nolan chapters, as in that era Nolan is mainly known for certain high profile failures.

However, the principal selling point of the novel is the Talion organization in general and the Justices in particular. As a Talion Justice, Nolan is essentially a superhero. He wears a costume that conceals his identity, he has special powers (albeit modest ones), and, of course, he fights crime. His mission in the novel even requires him to adopt an alter ego. The Talions graft the superhero model on to a military structure, giving the book much of the appeal of both superhero and military fiction. Though technically not a soldier, Nolan’s friends from his training days were literally comrades in arms in increasingly military-oriented exercises and the requirement that he absolutely obey the orders of his superiors within the organization becomes an important issue as the novel progresses.

Talion: Revenant was apparently the first novel Michael Stackpole wrote, even if it wasn’t the first he published, and the prose has some of the awkward moments you’d expect from a first novel. Since most of the novel is spent exploring the nature and implications of the Talion organization, the rest of the world can sometimes feel like a stock fantasy setting. Stackpole definitely sets out to provide interesting twists on some of the generic ideas he uses, however. His elves are xenophobic warrior savages, for example, and in a particularly memorable sequence, his goblins turn out to live in underground colonies much like ants.

Despite occasional discussions about the proper role of fear in the administration of justice and some rather melodramatic climactic scenes, Talion: Revenant is content to be–and succeeds at being–a fun, adventure fantasy. Although apparently considered too long when Stackpole first wrote it, by modern standards it’s of average length and tells a single, self-contained story. Michael Stackpole has promised to write a sequel if the electronic version sells a sufficient number of copies, but rest assured it would be the old-fashioned kind of sequel, not a direct continuation.

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