Just last week while on vacation out west, my son and I were discussing what were the greater obstacles to our enjoyment of books and what elements allowed for those obstacles to be overcome. One of my observations was that while a strong plot will rarely overcome poor characters for me, if you give me good characters, I can overlook more than a few plot flaws. Who knew how prophetic that conversation would be? For upon my return home, I found waiting for me a copy of D.B. Jackson’s A Plunder of Souls, the third in his historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. At the series’ center lies beleaguered thieftaker/conjurer Ethan Kaille, and it was Kaille’s still-engaging voice that managed to ease me past, if not blind me to, the several plot issues in the novel.
The year is 1769 and tensions are high: British soldiers have been stationed in the city and conflicts between the colonists and soldiers are becoming more frequent (it is only a year from now that the Boston Massacre will take place), non-importation policies have set Loyalists and Tories against one another amidst the merchants and the consumers, and the Sons of Liberty, led by Sam Adams, continue their protests against the Crown’s treatment. Adding to the building pressures within the city, a smallpox epidemic is breaking out and people are dying or being quarantined while those not yet affected consider fleeing the city or wander the streets in fear of contagion. Boston seems a tinderbox ready to be set alight, and what may be the spark that does so is a series of grotesque crimes involving the disinterment and mutilation of recently buried bodies. Kaille is hired by one of the churches to find the grave robbers, but even as his investigation brings him nearer to the villain, that which usually protects him — his magical power — becomes strangely unreliable, as his conjuring ability, and that of other “spellers” in the city, starts to diminish.
I’ve enjoyed Kaille’s character since he was first introduced in Thieftaker several years ago, and I was happy to see him again and spend more time with him in A Plunder of Souls. Jackson really has his voice down, you can sense the ease and confidence in it, and the 20th century noir-ish narrative tone melded to the historical setting makes for a fun combination.As I’ve mentioned in reviews of the earlier books, I like that Kaille is on the downside of middle age, that he does dumb things, that he often loses the battles even if he wins the wars, that he is torn in so many ways: between his independence and his love for tavern owner Kannice, his fondness for England and his growing sympathies for the colonist’s concerns, his grudging admiration/respect for and fear of his rival (really his better) thieftaker Sephira, his use of his power to do his job and his constant concern that such use might lead to prison or worse as a witch.
All of these elements come into play in A Plunder of Souls. The stationing of the troops throughout the city has him thinking that the time is soon coming where he’ll have to choose a side, and somewhat to his surprise, he expects it will be the colonists’. Unfortunately, this political backdrop gets short shrift in the novel, serving mostly as background via a few brief references, and then appearing in what I confess felt a bit too much like a scene shoehorned in so as to namedrop Adams and Revere. I wish Jackson had done a bit more with this material (though one has to assume that if there is a book four clearly in the plans, the timing will leave him little choice but to address the politics more fully). Kannice is putting pressure on him to give up thieftaking, pointing out it is not really an old man’s job, and even as he says no, he doesn’t outright dismiss the thinking behind her concerns. Here again, I wish we had seen more of Kannice and of their relationship. His contentious and complicated relationship with Sephira remains a source of tension, humor, and unpredictability, and it grows even more complicated in this third book as the two must consider at least a temporary alliance. Finally, we see a bit more of the conjuring and how it works in A Plunder of Souls, and what I was especially grateful for was the greater amount of time we spend with his fellow conjurer Janna, a cantankerous old woman with a spine of iron, a quick wit, and a sharp tongue. Send more please.
Where Jackson’s characterization falls short, unfortunately, is with the main villain, who never really came alive for me, feeling instead like a stock role: semi-crazed, fully-obsessive, fast-mood-shifting, full-of-pronouncements, you-can’t-stop-me bad guy. Which is too bad, because the premise that underlies the villain’s acts had some rich potential for complexity and possible empathy, but while we’re given a few nudges in those directions, it isn’t quite enough.
The problems with the villain cross over into the plot. I’m not going to go into details, but I had some questions with regard to how the villain executes his plot, some issues with how the plot is foiled (no real spoiler there I’m assuming), and felt the resolution was a bit clichéd. There seemed some contradictions, some plot holes, and a few points where I wanted to say, “But couldn’t he/they just…”
Kaille’s inability to conjure reliably added some nice tension, but then the unreliability aspect of it became an issue as well, as it all started to feel a little arbitrary, with the magic failing or not depending not on any sense of an underlying causation but based more on the needs of the plot. Here again, I felt Jackson left some cards on the table, as I would have liked to have seen him mine a bit more Kaille’s response to losing his magic, potentially for good: how does he adapt or not, does he realize he has become too dependent on it, does he begin to think more seriously and deeply about Kannice’s offer to co-own/run her tavern, how much of his sense of self is wrapped up in his being a conjurer, etc. A lot of questions could have arisen in response to losing his magic, but mostly what happens is when a spell fails, he just tries again until it doesn’t.
Plotting has been the weak point in all three novels to this point, and I keep hoping for some improvement in the storylines with each new incarnation. I’m still hoping that for book four (and we’re clearly pointed toward more in the series), which is admittedly beginning to wear a bit thin, but as I told my son, I can forgive a lot in the plot if you give me an winning character to carry me through, and Jackson has done that with Ethan Kaille. So while I may wish that those hoped-for plot improvements had come by now, I’m already looking forward to seeing what happens to poor Kaille next, especially in the context of the steadily worsening political situation.
A ruthless, extremely powerful conjurer seeks to wake the souls of the dead to wreak a terrible revenge on all who oppose him. Kaille’s minister friends have been helpless to stop crimes against their church. Graves have been desecrated in a bizarre, ritualistic way. Equally disturbing are reports of recently deceased citizens of Boston reappearing as grotesquely disfigured shades, seemingly having been disturbed from their eternal rest, and now frightening those who had been nearest to them in life. But most personally troubling to Kaille is a terrible waning of his ability to conjure. He knows all these are related…but how?
When Ethan discovers the source of this trouble, he realizes that his conjure powers and those of his friends will not be enough to stop a madman from becoming all-powerful. But somehow, using his wits, his powers, and every other resource he can muster, Ethan must thwart the monster’s terrible plan and restore the restless souls of the dead to the peace of the grave. Let the battle for souls begin in A Plunder of Souls, the third, stand-alone novel in Jackson’s acclaimed Thieftaker series.