by Karina Montgomery, staff writer
Tom Doyle’s debut novel may not be the first to walk the path of modern American magic users, but it forges a very patriotic trail of its own. If you’ve read Jim Butcher or Warren Ellis and enjoyed them, you’ve found a new wellspring for this type of story. The craft (which is magic, though that word seems to be verboten) in Doyle’s story is firmly rooted in family, history, place, roots, and connections. It’s palpably earthy and tightly bound by the rules of the universe that Doyle paints here. In America, there are two major families of practitioners of the craft, who date back to the Pilgrims and are, naturally, feuding: The pagan Mortons and the Puritan Edicotts.
Based on historical figures, these families secretly use their craft in service to their country, to the land they love and from which their power springs. Is it the physical land or the governmental power? Philosophies may differ, but the sense I got is that the birth of the nation of America was due to the confluence of one powerful Pilgrim immigrant and the innate powers in the Native Americans. It’s an interesting premise too, that a power so intimately tied to place, history, and ancestral roots would have taken place in such a young and transient country. Perhaps it has to do with the tensions between pagan earth worship and religious deity worship; which is the true source of power?
Our lead, craftsman Dale Morton, receives a curse on a military mission that endangers him and others, so he must retire from service into non-practicing obscurity while also investigating and curing his curse. His present-day nemesis (but long-time family foe), religious soldier Michael Endicott, thinks Morton is really turning to the dark side of his family tree to be a bad guy, so is on a mission to thwart Morton. But then again, the government is prophesying terrible things and then there are these other bad guys … Morton’s in a tough position, what with being banned from using craft and all.
American Craftsmen borrows elements from Minority Report, American history, ancient mythologies, AI research, and even has a Harry Potter-esque 11th hour info-dump. Unlike Rowling’s hero, however, Morton knows all the intricacies of his world and history already, whereas we readers do not. While I often felt left behind by the internal governmental crossfire of intelligence and counter-intelligence, military secrecy, and huge knowledge gaps about the Mortons and Endicotts, the novel is such a fast-paced and exhilarating read, full of fantastical elements, that I was only occasionally bothered by it.
Additionally, the narration zigs and zags between first and third person, and many characters have ambiguous motives, which adds to the disorientation. Sometimes the story got a little caught up in its own obfuscations and left me in the dust, feeling like I missed a piece. A wonderful epilogue – you know, at the end –is so helpful with the pieces that I was missing while reading, it would make a delightful, spoiler-free prologue that would add so much to the base enjoyment of the story.
However, the base enjoyment is still strong, thanks to Doyle’s stringent control of his narrative, even the most outlandish elements feel plausible because of his adherence to his own rules. Morton is a relatable character, afraid the accusations against him by his enemies are true, but still sure in his gut that they are not. Throughout the book, he associates with sympathetic military friends, the amusing ghost of his grandfather, and an enigmatic Persian woman named Scherie. The Morton ancestral House is a living character in its own right, full of character and vividly portrayed. The novel is fiercely patriotic in a way that feels otherworldly and/or religious as well. Dale is restricted from using Craft by the government, by his pursuers, his conscience, the elements, but restraints adds to the tension.
Overall, I found American Craftsmen to be an enjoyable read, and I would recommend anyone who seeks it out to go ahead and safely read the epilogue first. There are no spoilers but I think it would make the current-day story dynamics richer and easier to track.