by: Tom Doyle
American Craftsmen is the debut novel by American author Tom Doyle. A world of military, magic, a rich history that goes back to colonial America and a race against a dark curse combines with action, espionage, and conspiracy to create a fast-paced and interesting read with just enough hints of deeper currents to keep you turning pages. A great debut in the genre of Military Urban Fantasy.
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.
Urban Fantasy is about as hip a new thing as Teen Dystopia, so it is often the case that it feels a little tired and repetitive. There’s only so many times regular people can stumble upon knowledge that there’s actually magic and creatures and whatnot hiding outside the fringes of what most people can see, and become embroiled in some deep story where they, despite being total neophytes, manage to discover some great power and save the day.American Craftsman, on the other hand, felt more like a legitimately fresh take on the genre. Dale Morton has been a practitioner all his life, as has his family back generations. Most importantly, this is a world where those in charge already know what’s really going on behind the scenes, and make a point of using it like any other resource with military application: efficiently and effectively.
Tying in the modern setting with the historical background of the Mortons really gave the novel a sense of place that is often lacking, especially in military-style sci-fi and fantasy. As soon as you apply a military overlay to a story (especially the American military), everything becomes focused on the unit or squad as a single entity; the story tends to live very much in the moment, so you lose out on a lot of the background and historical bits that put the current action in a broader context. I suppose the way I’d describe it is a tendency to become too mission focused, which is, after all, what elite military squads are supposed to do. While that aspect works very well in real life, you have the ability in fiction to step away from the action and take a deeper look at the mythology underlying the plot. Doyle definitely uses that ability to full effect in a way that blends with the action and never seems like an exposition dump.
The pacing of the rest of American Craftsmen, outside the history, is more in line with a traditional military SF novel, which is an advantage as compared to more traditional fantasy. Fantasy tends to wander along garden paths, spending more time on details of setting and mood. The harder SF tends to be paced more like a cinematic experience which works very well to keep the story moving and maintain interest. While it may seem contradictory to both praise the fast pacing elements coming from military SF and also the inclusion of the background and history coming from traditional fantasy, it’s all about balance.
Doyle combines all of the best elements of great Military SF and great Urban Fantasy, while neatly avoiding the common pitfalls of both. You get enough time out for history and background to avoid the tightly focused military experience which can leave you feeling that you missed out on important things, but still maintain enough of a mission presence that you never run the risk of feeling the characters need to get on with it. Coming from a debut author, this sense of balance and timing is really impressive. I actually had to double check more than once to confirm that Doyle is actually a debuting author, and not just debuting in Urban Fantasy.
I'm definitely excited to read more from Tom Doyle in this version of America, and hope for future installments. If you enjoy the Urban Fantasy of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files but wish they had better trigger discipline, or if you enjoy the supreme effectiveness of a Jason Bourne from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Trilogy (or the many Eric Von Lustbader sequels) but wish that his superheroics were proof of magic, then American Craftsmen is a great choice.