Stephen Merlino’s Jack of Souls marks the beginning of an epic fantasy adventure that is thrilling, suspenseful and emotionally appealing enough to set it apart from others in the genre. This is a book where the characters are on a clock and the stakes are high. Comparisons could easily be drawn between this book and the works of Tolkien or Martin, and readers can use those comparisons to see whether or not they would find this sort of story appetizing. From there, Merlino weaves a tale of swords and sorcery that somehow finds new ways to take readers down the well-worn path of fantasy literature. Tolkien’s influence can be found in the beautifully described environments of the story and the depth of the cast of well-developed characters. This is a story with class systems, religious beliefs, magical discrimination, governmental hierarchies and societal infrastructures that the author has taken great care to explain in interesting detail. The comparison to Martin is mostly drawn because the Tale of Fire and Ice series is often acclaimed for its interpretation of real-world, human stories through the lens of fantasy. Merlino is a master here, and whether its familial infighting, drug addiction or governmental overreach, the author does a fantastic job of depicting contemporary struggles in a world of curses and rogues.
The story focuses around Harric, a cunning trickster who is set on a quest to break a curse, or else he will die on his 19th birthday. He is joined on his journey by the fierce and determined Caris and the wise but addled Sir Willard. The trio are met on their adventures by a well-developed and diverse cast of tertiary characters, and while the tragic flaws of many of the denizens of this world are evident, the author does a good job of sprinkling wit and humor throughout their sometimes bleak exchanges. The perspective in the book shifts from time to time, but it’s done in a well-structured way and the pacing of the novel will make for a smooth ride from beginning to end. That’s not to say that the book isn’t without scenes of delicious action that will get your heart racing, they are many, and readers should also be aware that this is a complex tale. Luckily, the characters that inhabit this world are easy to relate to and root for, and I think most readers will find one or two that they empathize with on a personal level.