J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: Jack of Hearts

Hello again, everyone in wordpress land! Sorry I haven’t been around much – real life stuff has been keeping me on my toes.

I’m really excited for this week. The 25th marks the release date of Pillars of Eternity, a PC game I helped on Kickstarter 3 years ago. I backed a fair amount of projects on that site, but Pillars was the one that got me most excited by far. Why? It’s a new spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, one of my favorite game series of all time. And it’s made by a lot of the same people who made the original games, plus one Chris Avellone, who I feel is one of the most talented writers the video game industry has ever seen. He’s responsible for such games as Planescape:Torment, Alpha Protocol, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, and Mask of the Betrayer. Say what you will about the gameplay in some of those, but the plots and dialogue are top notch in all of them.

He rocks hard, so he makes games that rock hard.

So, when I read an interview where he mentioned he was reading a particular novel and enjoying it, I figured it would be a good read. He plugged Jack of Hearts, by Ricardo Bare.

The blurb reads like this:

Slave. Loner. Assassin.
Some boys throw their hearts away. Jack let a witch take his.
He surrendered it long ago to the Lady of Twilight so that he would never feel heartache–or anything else–again. But there was a price. The Lady transformed him into a callous hunter forced to do her bidding, and now she’s commanded him to chase down and kill a thieving wizard named Moribrand. Love, hope, and human connection are concepts he can no longer comprehend, painful weaknesses he chose to cast aside. But when Jack meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, the impossible happens–he feels an echo of his distant heart, and the sensation staggers him.
Cassandra, a spellbound girl who can only communicate through her mirror image, awakens something in him more dangerous, more impossible, than he ever imagined: a memory of who he once was and how it felt to care about another human being. She challenges his loyalty to the Lady and shows him his heart might be worth saving. What will it take for Jack to take his heart back from a witch, who has no intention of giving it up?

Sounds intriguing enough, right? Did it live up to my expectations? Well…

What I liked:

The pacing. The story, though small scale, is very simple and brisk. Jack is running away from his past, and as a result is hunting Moribrand, a wizard with a checkered past of his own. Honestly, the start to this book reminded me of the opening to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, except in a much more traditional fantasy style. Either way, it’s a very easy read. Straightforward plot, straightforward characters, straightforward everything.

The dwarf. In the same interview I read with Chris Avellone, he mentioned that the author did something really cool with the concept of dwarves. He’s not wrong, either.

The dwarves in this world aren’t the ale-swilling, axe waving, pseudo scottish brogue speaking dwarves classic fantasy usually serves you: No, dwarves in this world are a mishmash of trolls, and something out of nightmares. They like to control bridges, and only let you cross if you pay a toll, like trolls. But in reality, they want more than your gold – they want your legs, because they don’t have any of their own. They can steal your legs and use them as their own, if they know your true name. It reminds me of a twisted fairy tale.

It’s such a (dare I say it) clever and original idea that calling them dwarves is almost a disservice. I wish the author would’ve given them a more specific name. That’s just my preference, though.

The action. While the plot is simple, this author really shines at writing evocative action. Any time Jack is kicking butt, or someone is doing something like climbing an abandoned tower or escaping from a slave camp, this book really pops. It’s enjoyable, and made the climax really be something greater than the sum of its parts.

Jack and the mirror. I found the plot of how Jack discovers feeling again, even though he willingly gave up his heart. The parallel presented between the past and the present is kind of obvious, but it’s done well enough for me to like it. It’s a nice little story within the story.


 What I didn’t like:

The loose ends. For such a straightforward story, it still has some odd wrinkles hidden in the plot. Some aspects of the story feel ignored, or even worse, forgotten. Now, as a writer myself I know the value of asking questions and not answering them. But the timing on some of these just felt strange and… sloppy. Stuff like (mild spoilers ahead, sorry):

– The dwarf shows up close to the end, angry and intent on stealing the legs from Minnow, a simpleton giant of a man, who ergo has the biggest pair of legs he has ever seen. He comes and goes in a memorably creepy scene. Then we never see him again. I understand this book is built for a sequel, but even books in a series try to put most characters at a more definitive point than this character got. We don’t even know where he went. It’s not like he went far if he wants his stated goal of Minnow’s legs, since Minnow plays a significant role in the climax.

– Early on in the book, Jack meets Cassandra, the girl in the mirror, when they are both trapped as part of a salt baron’s private collection of oddities. We learn later on that Cassandra is actually a very important person to the most important society that we know of in the world, and that the mirror is her only connection to the outside world. So how did the mirror come into the possession of a random bad dude in the desert? He doesn’t even know who she is, just that she’s an oracle. This is something that could be explain in a few sentences, yet we’re blindsided by the revelation about her. The lack of explanation made it feel a bit TOO tacked on to me.

Those are just two examples. There are more, but you get the idea.

The language. When the author is at the more plodding points in the story, you see a lot more overproduced writing. By that, I mean in some POVs the narrative is just dragged down by tons of adjectives and adverbs. Any time you’re following Moribrand around, it’s especially obvious. I know it’s just to give the character voice, but it felt a little thick in a lot of spots.

The magic system. The magic system in this book is especially odd. You can do magic, but only if you 1) possess the heart of a spirit, and 2) have a child to serve as a proxy for your spells. It’s a tad bit odd. I didn’t really like it because it took any concept of skill or knowledge away from the concept of a wizard. If all your power comes from a locket, and you can’t even use it directly, what kind of powerful being are you, really? Others might really dig this point, I dunno. But I did not.


The verdict:

This book is like a comfort food. It’s not going to awe you, or change your point of view on anything fantasy. But then, you don’t want it to. Sometimes you just want a fun, simple read that introduces you to some fun and interesting characters. This book does that really well, I think. It’s not without considerable weaknesses, but it’s a worthwhile read.







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This entry was posted on March 23, 2015 by in Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .
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