Arcane Mercenaries


Reviewed by Michelle Stevens

Arcane Mercenaries by Mark August, 2022, 380 pages, $13.99

It’s a world at war. Grant Gwydian is the leader of a mercenary company of whom all the members have magical abilities. When his friend, the Alennan crown prince, is assassinated and his daughter kidnapped by a Tau assassin sent by Narrene, Grant gathers his forces and tracks her down, where he gets more involved in politics than he was hoping. While on his mission, he learns that magic and the plans of nobles are more intertwined than they first appeared.

This is a fantasy novel by Mark August, already an established author in the Heroic Fantasy tradition. Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that focuses on daring heroes and their exploits. The genre is similar to epic fantasy in terms of morality, but is often lower in scope. This is ultimately a story of adventure and of war. There are clear heroes and villains, and the protagonist is heavily involved in the war plaquing the land. It’s a story of good and evil, but also of soldiers. And while there are many aspects of high fantasy, with the war going on, and the hint of an upcoming apocalypse, the story instead focuses on Grant finding the daughter of his friend, a considerably lower-stakes goal. Also a part of heroic fantasy is the conflicts being things solved with martial prowess. Grant shows disdain for politicians, and the Alennian Crown Prince, who is steeped in the affairs of politics, often fights alongside his soldiers, which is most likely why Grant tolerates him. And while Grant is thrust into politics, ultimately, the climax is resolved through fighting.

With any fantasy story, world-building is an important component, but it is a delicate art. On the one hand, you must show the reader the world, the politics, the religion, the folk customs. On the other hand, if you don’t handle it properly, and simply write two pages of the inner workings of your world, the reader will lose interest. Here, the author does not tell you everything at once. Mark August first tells you of a world of magic, where mages are fought over. Then, he tells you of the various rulers of the different countries in this world. Some of these are important later in the book, others will presumably be important later in the trilogy. It is also mentioned that there was a rebellion in Narrene. It is unclear whether this information is going to be important later, or if this information is simply an addition to make the world feel fuller, as if it has an entire history behind it, but either way, it is a welcome addition, thanks to the few lines of dialogue he dedicates to the subject before moving on to the plot.

Grant fits quite well with the plot. With any story, it is important that you force your protagonist outside of their comfort zone, because this will show the reader who they are as characters, and because it makes for a more interesting read without having to raise the stakes. Grant is a soldier, not a politician. He shows disdain for politics, and the people who immerse themselves in it. And yet, the plot thrusts him into a tale of political intrigue. As Grant investigates where the daughter of his friend has gone, he goes deeper and deeper into politics, a world where no one can be trusted, and everyone is only looking out for themselves. Some factions even show an interest in him, and Grant must decide whether or not he can trust this faction enough to form an alliance with them. This plot not only sets up the theme of the trilogy, it also thrusts its protagonist into a situation where they are outside of their comfort zone.

I have mentioned a couple of times that this story is part of a trilogy. It is the first book in the trilogy, in fact. As the first book of a trilogy, it has two jobs. Number one, it must set up the plot for the whole series. Number two, it must stand on its own. In this book, we learn quite a lot of the book. As Grant investigates, he learns shocking things, that raise further questions for the readers. These questions are not answered. Instead, Mark August uses them to entice us into reading the rest of the trilogy, to find out what happens next. But that doesn’t mean the book leaves the readers unsatisfied. Mark August gives Grant a small victory. The conflict is, initially, that the daughter has gotten kidnapped and Grant is going to find her. At the end of the book, he achieves this goal. But in the meantime, he has found things that raise even further questions. On what exactly will happen next, we can only speculate. It is mentioned of the Alennan Emperor dreaming of an apocalypse. It is logical to assume that Grant will find himself in the middle of this apocalypse.

Most importantly, this story speaks of politicians and how they play with the lives of the civilians they are supposed to serve. In the beginning, Grant and his company are used as weapons, to fight political opponents. Later, Grant finds that the StarTouched, which he is one of, might be a greater tool than realized. There are hints that Grant has lost a family in the event that brought magic into the world. Whatever Grant’s role in the game of politics is, it is clear that the politicians will consider the lives of his family as unimportant in their quest for power.