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Monday, April 27, 2020

The Armored Saint by Myke Cole (Reviewed by David Stewart)



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Confession - I picked up The Armored Saint not from any recommendation or reviews I'd read. I had very little idea what I was getting into when buying the book (like many, I thought that the armor on the cover was way too big for that woman). I mostly bought it because I find the Twitter romance between Myke Cole and Sam Sykes so adorable, and as I'd already read Sykes, I felt I owed it to Cole to give his work a look. Well, color me surprised because I loved this book (in fact more than I liked Seven Blades in Black, which I also did like). The Armored Saint is not typical fantasy (whatever that means these days). It's gritty, with an edge of realism that even magical trappings can't dull. It tells the story of a young woman in an oppressive land who is faced time and again with situations that she is in no way equipped to deal with, and yet somehow she always survives and comes away stronger. This is a book packed with real emotional moments that not only surprise a reader, but stick with them. So yes, I am thankful for Sam and Myke's rivalry (brovalry?) because it has now allowed me the opportunity to begin two promising fantasy series that I will continue to read long after the two of them have broken up.

Strengths

Heloise. Heloise is the book's strength. I could stop there, but I won't. The absolute tidal wave of strong female characters in the past decade's fantasy has been a real thrill for me. Strong women are my ideal protagonist, and whatever that says about me is irrelevant because Heloise is a great character by any definition. Her growth arc is remarkable in large part due to how wild it gets at times. She begins the novel fairly tame, but from the first chapter we can see a spark in her that we know at some point will fully ignite. Cole does a remarkable job of stoking that spark, little by little with events through the story, several of which are large and momentous, and by the end Heloise is hardly even Heloise anymore - or perhaps she's the Heloise she was meant to be.

Cole's character work is well done elsewhere, but it's clear that our eyes are meant to stay with Heloise. Most of the other characters really only exist in relation to the protagonist, which I might find issue with if it didn't make so much sense in context. Cole wraps this story around his central character in a way that defies anyone else from intruding. That said, we do feel those other characters in much the same way that we might feel the people in our lives - we know that we are living our own stories, but it does not make us the most important person in that story. Heloise's father, Samson, for instance, is a nuanced veteran making the best of a life that is beset with obstacles. Heloise's love interest, a blacksmith's daughter named Basina, has moments seen through Heloise's eyes that could be seen from a dozen different angles but we feel them as Heloise would, and it makes them powerful.

Heloise's world is one inspired by the witch hunts of most of human history. The ruling power fears a return of devils from the underworld, devils brought about through the use of magic. Inquisition-like factions terrorize the rural land where Heloise and her family live and toil. They are the equivalent of fantasy peasants, in that they have no power and are made to believe in the existence of devils and demonspawn with very little evidence. I fully expected this book to be a cautionary tale against religion, but without spoiling anything, Cole turned my expectations completely around, and by the end of the book I was dumbfounded and confused, but in a good way. I want to read more.

Weaknesses

I will not give a completely free pass to my confusion at the end because the ambiguity that Cole leaves us with is frustrating. Ideally, I would have guesses about where the next novel is heading (I know it's headed for war, but that's about it). It's hard to criticize the book in this way because I think there is value in the way it ends, but I might have wished for something slightly different.

A valid criticism I have is one of scale. This only comes into play during the last quarter or so of the book, but I felt that Cole had a problem of describing the size of things. That might seem petty, but bear with me because my criticism makes sense in terms of reading flow. Towards the beginning of the novel, as a spoiler free for instance, Heloise runs into a ranger named Clodio, "Heloise ran for her house, so intent on beating the failing light that she blundered into a pair of legs as solid and hard as oak trunks." This broke the narrative for me because I immediately began sizing up characters. To run into someone's legs, Heloise would either have to be the size of my toddler, or Clodio would have to be the size of Yao Ming. There are similar instances in the novels big climactic scene. Heloise gets a suit of armor and has to fight, but the thing she fights against is either the same size as she is or as big as a house and I had no idea which was true. This might seem like a silly thing to criticize in a book, but it does break a reader's immersion if they have to start doing math mid-sentence.

If You Liked

It's tricky for me to compare this book to others in the fantasy genre because I think it's unique. There are obvious echoes of The Crucible in The Armored Saint, but I could also make far-fetched allusions to action films like Pacific Rim or Iron Man. In tone, I think the book I can most relate this to is Graham Austin-King's Faithless, both for its quandaries on religion but also for the incredibly personal journeys that its characters make.

Parting Thoughts

I loved The Armored Saint. It really affected me in a surprising way, and it did so in a mere 200 pages. There is one heart-wrenching scene in particular that is really sticking with me and I get a little teary just thinking about it. Cole has a real handle on how to write emotion, and how to write about the bonds between people, and I think there are writers that could learn a lot from that expertise. I have already picked up a copy of The Queen of Crows with literally no idea where this series is going, and I like that. I suspect to be devastated again and again.

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