Because I only read about 80 pages of Tom Doyle’s debut novel American Craftsmen, this is not so much a review as a summary of what I liked and ultimately didn’t like.
But first, here’s the blurb:
In modern America, two soldiers will fight their way through the magical legacies of Poe and Hawthorne to destroy an undying evil—if they don’t kill each other first.
US Army Captain Dale Morton is a magician soldier—a “craftsman.” After a black-ops mission gone wrong, Dale is cursed by a Persian sorcerer and haunted by his good and evil ancestors. Major Michael Endicott, a Puritan craftsman, finds gruesome evidence that the evil Mortons, formerly led by the twins Roderick and Madeline, have returned, and that Dale might be one of them.
Dale uncovers treason in the Pentagon’s highest covert ranks. He hunts for his enemies before they can murder him and Scherie, a new friend who knows nothing of his magic.
Endicott pursues Dale, divided between his duty to capture a rogue soldier and his desire to protect Dale from his would-be assassins. They will discover that the demonic horrors that have corrupted American magic are not bound by family or even death itself.
In Tom Doyle’s thrilling debut, American Craftsmen, Seal Team Six meets ancient magic–with the fate of the United States hanging in the balance . . .
I can’t be the only person who immediately thought of Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops novels after reading that blurb, right? Well, after reading a good chunk of this novel, I was actually surprised to find out that it uses a very different approach to the “soldier with magical powers” idea.
In American Craftsmen, some of the first families who settled in America developed magical powers. Thomas Morton, for example, settled in Massachusetts in 1624 and discovered he could alter the weather and see the sins of other settlers. The “Craft” families made a secret covenant with George Washington to help during the American Revolution, and have been around ever since, passing down their gifts from generation to generation.
Dale Morton, a descendant of the original Morton, appears to be the main character of American Craftsmen, but the novel includes several other Craft families, including the Endecotts, a Puritan Craft family who seem to be the Morton family’s main antagonists and whose present-day descendant still carries around the sword his ancestor in 1628 used to hack down Thomas Morton’s maypole.
To be fair, I really liked this approach, but then I’m a sucker for secret histories. Tom Doyle liberally sprinkles historical “facts” throughout the early part of the book, revealing the tortured history of the Mortons (some of them went very evil at one point, and are still known as the Left Hand Mortons) and the secret influence of the Craft families on several historical events. It’s a neat idea, and one that could possibly be turned into several stories and novels set in past, present, and future.
There’s only one problem, though, and that’s the quality of the prose. It is, simply, not good. It started annoying me from the very first chapter, which is narrated from Morton’s point of view. It’s so full of forced bad-ass posturing that it starts grating after a few paragraphs. To be fair, I read an uncorrected advance copy, but even if some things were fixed in editing afterwards, I believe that this wouldn’t have changed the end result significantly: the military bad-ass voice sounds like a decision on the part of the author, and unfortunately it just wasn’t executed very well.
Not that this is the only problem with the quality of the writing. Other sections and chapters, narrated by other characters or at least from other characters’ points of view, have similar problems. Dialogue is often particularly awkward, with characters mentioning facts solely for the benefit of the reader.
The final straw, for me at least, was the way Morton describes and deals with Scherie, short for Scherazade, a “Persian” beauty he encounters early in the novel. I’m just going to go ahead and quote two lines from the book for you to illustrate my point. (Again, these are quotes from an advance uncorrected copy.)
But she was worried about something. Must be me. […] Was she here for a date? Should I try seduce her to keep her near me, so I could protect her?
Scherie averted her skillful yet embarrassed eyes.
The first quote is a perfect illustration of why Morton’s character drove me nuts. The second one… Well, maybe now you understand why I decided to cut my losses after about 80 pages?
It’s really a shame, because the whole “secret history with magical families battling across the ages” is just catnip for me. American Craftsmen sounded like Myke Cole’s magic in the armed forces combined with Ben Aaronovitch’s centuries-long history of magic. I was excited to check it out, but came away disappointed.
Edit, May 13th, 2014: here’s a great post by Tom Doyle that mentions many of the things I liked about this novel.