The Way of the Shield, Marshall Ryan Maresca (DAW 978-0756414795, $7.99, 354pp, pb) October 2018. Cover by Paul Young.
I’m shallow enough to admit I only picked up Marshall Ryan Maresca’s The Way of the Shield because I was told the secondary protagonist was a queer woman. Well, that, and it sounded like a potentially entertaining, city-based, sword-and-sorcery-style adventure.
Dayne Heldrin is a young man whose future with the Tarian Order is in doubt after his best effort to save lives ended up with the scion of a political dynasty crippled for life. The Tarians are an archaic holdover in the modern city of Maradaine: they once stood for peace, justice, and the defence of ordinary people, but in a land with constables and marshals and a standing army, they have less purpose than they once did. Dayne, however, truly believes in the code of the Tarians, and when he gets caught up in the midst of political turmoil – violent acts and riots agitating for the rights of ordinary people – he has to act according to his conscience, not the dictates of his superiors.
There are two main viewpoint characters in The Way of the Shield, and a scattering of other viewpoints. These others are generally characters involved in the political conspiracy to stoke social agitation for their own ends, and unfortunately for the novel’s dramatic tension, a large proportion of their time is spent in meetings in which they explain to each other their goals and argue about their effectiveness. It’s possible to make riveting drama out of meetings, but difficult: Marshall Ryan Maresca doesn’t succeed here.
The main viewpoint characters are our protagonist Dayne and a younger Tarian trainee called Jerinne. (If I were holding out for undeniably queer representation, I’d be disappointed: Dayne gets to be thoroughly kissed by at least two women, while Jerinne is quietly attracted to one or two other women, but it would be possible to read the novel without ever reading her as queer unless one had already been told.) The Way of the Shield is at its best when they’re running around in the streets getting themselves beaten up by political subversives and the constabulary, and dealing with the consequences of their decisions. Maresca writes solid action scenes and has an eye for the believably absurd.
The Way of the Shield is at its weakest, though, when it comes to representing politics and political ferment. The Maradaine political scene as represented in this novel feels both overstuffed and underdeveloped, and politics drives most of the novel’s incidents. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t feel more organic and true-to-life: fantasy could use more novels that deal seriously with politics and political reform.
The Way of the Shield is a fun and diverting book, but it’s also a thematically and emotionally slight one. If you’re looking for reasonably decent light entertainment, it might suit your needs. If you want more depth than that, look elsewhere.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.
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