CSFF Blog Tour: The Staff and the Sword

The central question of The Staff and the Sword is who will be the next king – Illustra’s soteregia, who will die to save the kingdom. When the church casts the lots for the answer, half the lots say Liam and half say Errol. Errol is the staff, for this is his weapon, the weapon with which he slayed monsters and climbed to fame.

And Liam, I suppose, is the sword.

Though of primary importance to the story, Liam is at best a second-tier character; in terms of page count, he might be a third-tier character. Martin, Adora, Luis, Rokha, maybe even Rale and Merodach are invested with more time and certainly more emotion than Liam.

The story unveils little of what he thinks or feels about any of his life’s circumstances, from his lost parents to his unusual upbringing to his given fate. We see that he accepts – maybe even embraces? – fighting and then dying as Illustra’s royal sacrifice, but we don’t know why. Did he abandon himself to Deas’ choosing? Was he the sort of born hero who dies easily if he dies well? Had he so built his life around one purpose that he had nothing else in it? I read all three books, and I couldn’t say.

I don’t think that readers of The Staff and the Sword trilogy really know who Liam is. I don’t think the other characters knew, either. The Staff and the Sword is Errol’s story and no one else’s. Liam is left an unplumbed mystery. The reader’s emotions are mostly with him, as are the characters’. It’s sad but it’s true: The only character in A Draw of Kings who didn’t prefer Liam to die instead of Errol was Antil.

Not to invest in Liam was a curious choice on Patrick Carr’s part; the suspense of who was the soteregia would have been greater had readers been led to know and care about Liam as well as Errol. It may be that Errol was The Hero and that’s all there was to Carr’s decision. It would have been a very different series, and quite possibly a longer one, if Liam had been raised to a similar level.

Possibly the story held Liam at arm’s length in order to pursue the contrast between him and Errol. The books always paired them opposite each other. At the beginning, it was Errol the hopeless drunk and Liam the promising young blacksmith; later, the solis and the omne, the savior and the king, the staff and the sword, the everyman hero and the warrior from a legend.

Perfect, several characters thought of Liam. Untouchable, Rokha called him. You need distance to maintain that. When you get near something, it grows more flawed. But also more loveable.

CSFF Blog Tour: A Draw of Kings

The kingdom of Illustra is faced by a two-front war. Or a three-front war. It depends at how many different points the foreign hordes can force their way into the country. Illustra needs to find their soteregia, their savior-king. Then they will crown him. Then he will go and fight for them.

Then he will die, and save them.

Every time they cast the lots to find the savior-king, the lots say Errol and Liam, each name as many times as the other. So Illustra prepares for war, and goes out to battle, all the while waiting for something to reveal the truth, to untwist the Gordian knot. Who is soteregia, and why does the cast of lots fail?

A Draw of Kings is the final book in The Staff and the Sword trilogy, written by Patrick W. Carr. Here Errol’s journey – begun as the village drunk two books earlier – finally ends, and here they discover at last who the Soteregia is.

Carr handles a large cast of characters, and honors all the principals with a true part to play in the story. The narrative is complex, as the characters divide into three storylines, for a while widely divergent from each other. There was a little confusion to this at the beginning, when it took Carr several chapters to return to one storyline. (Two missions actually began on a ship, and at one point I forgot they were different ships. I remember when I figured this out. Huh! That’s why Martin wasn’t around during the storm!)

Even at the beginning, I appreciated the multiple storylines, where the characters pursued the same goal with different quests and in different theaters. It suited Illustra’s many troubles.

It also allowed Patrick Carr to display the vastness of the world he has created, from Ongol to the steppes to Illustra herself. Finally, the different storylines gave the assemblage of characters space to work and to shine.

The most important part of any story is the end. Ending a story that has sprawled across three books and a thousand pages is especially hard, and hardest of all is ending a story you yourself have tied into a Gordian knot. But Patrick Carr succeeded in crafting a satisfying ending, in cutting through his Gordian knot, and it is this success, of all his successes, that is most impressive.

A Draw of Kings had a strong religious element that still felt somewhat to the side of the action. I enjoyed picking out the real-world parallels (I caught a nod toward Calvinism!), and I was moved by Errol’s final conclusion regarding the mercy of Deas. I wish that part of the book had been stronger, though perhaps the story didn’t have room for it.

The flaw of this book was a favoritism towards Errol that infected the other characters. They were partisans for Errol, and occasionally it made them act less than what they were. Adora was wrong to invite Antil to dinner, only to prod and taunt him; if you make someone your guest you need to treat him as a guest. Far worse was the archbenefice, who punished one man’s insolence to Errol by having his teeth broken.

Worst of all was Martin. He expressed his willingness to “search church law and tradition” for a way to execute Antil. Justice is rarely served this way. I have already determined I want to kill you, so all that’s to do now is to scour law and tradition for some technicality on which to do it. And with Illustra on the brink of annihilation and the church having just regained holy Scripture that had been lost for centuries, Martin made a priority of “correcting perceived slights to Errol on behalf of his predecessor and Rodran”.

Yet this flaw was ultimately a minor one, and A Draw of Kings is not only the last book of its series, but the best. It seals The Staff and the Sword as a rich and compelling fantasy, the sort of story that suggests a thousand other stories to be told.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.