The Paladin Caper: The Gang Saves the World

paladin caper

And so Rogues of the Republic comes to its climax and conclusion, and so I come to the end of what turned into a trilogy of review posts. It’s been something of a rollercoaster ride, and, despite these not being my most view-grabbing posts, I’m glad I decided to write up my thoughts on each instalment separately. For one thing, hey, even if these aren’t my most view-grabbing posts, I want to put the word out about a story that I enjoy, and if coming across these gets at least one person to say “hey, that sounds like fun” and discover a new book they enjoy, I have done my work as a blogger and can be delighted with that. For another, I’ve had quite a different reaction to each individual entry in this trilogy, which has been interesting to chart. And the reaction to the third one… well, it’s not as positive as the previous two, but in a way that highlights why the previous two were so successful. Without further ado, let’s get into exactly why.

Following on from the end of The Prophecy Con, the mysterious and dastardly Ancients are set to return to the world they made and then escaped from, now assured that there’s no way their ancient enemy The Glimmering Folk will bother them. It was, of course, the actions of our main cast of rogues that barred The Glimmering Folks’s entry, something that was heroic at the time but now seems a little detrimental. But, not giving themselves time to dwell too much on that, Loch and company level up from a ragtag crew of petty crooks into the crack team that will save the world from enslavement by the Ancients.

I don’t want to say that this book disappointed me… but I also want to write an honest review. It’s fairly easy to pinpoint exactly why the finale of Rogues of the Republic fell a little flat for me, despite the overall good quality of the series; and, to be fair, the first reason is simply that I enjoyed Book Two so darned much that Book Three had big boots to fill. Unfortunately, The Paladin Caper failed to live up to the magic of The Prophecy Con (which hey, leaves us with the middle book in the trilogy as both my favourite and the technical best, which is still rare and exciting). The other factors are more to do with the content and structure of the story itself—issues which, incidentally, also stem from the story having proverbial big boots to step into.

This is The One Where The Gang Saves The World, after all, and that is a fairly tall order that necessitates a shift away from the very personal motivating forces that kicked off the series. Now, this isn’t to say that Weekes should not have gone for this kind of plotline—after all, it’s only natural that the stakes should rise as a series progresses, and the seeds for this final cosmic conflict were sown throughout the series. The first book even dabbles in a bit of a world-saving narrative with Dairy embracing his destiny and warding off The Glimmering Folk in the first place, though admittedly that plotline had an undercurrent of Weeks taking the piss out of that Destined Hero trope at the same time. Maybe it’s because the world-saving in The Paladin Caper is sincere rather than playful that it rings a little dissonant compared to where the story began.

In any case, the off-the-mark nature of The Paladin Caper, at least for me, does raise the question of whether every high fantasy really needs to be epic in nature and scale. I get it, you know—you built this whole world and all its intricate cosmic layers, it’d be a waste not to face it with doom and push it to its limits. But ultimately, what made The Palace Job capture my heart in such a big way was its focus on the small scale within a sprawling fantasy world. Character interactions, personal motivations, the journeys of individuals… compelling human details, a lot of which is muffled by the clamour of the impending apocalypse in this book.

Which is a shame, because the final volume takes the chance to show us some as-yet-unexplored backstory for the main cast that we have come to know and love. At least, in theory. There are some great glimpses into the inner lives and complicated histories of these characters, but they get glossed over or rushed through in the story’s race to get back to The Bigger Picture.

The best (and by best I mean most painful) example of this is Loch’s relationship with her sister. Loch is our main hero so, arguably, we ought to know the most about her, but most of that knowledge is slipped to the reader in intriguing glimpses. Even when she returns to her ancestral home and confronts her inner conflict about running away to join the army versus her sense of duty to her family, it is just brief enough to crack Loch’s tough surface for a moment and provide a glimmer of a vision of her inner turmoil… before focus shifts to the Plot.

Her interactions with her sister introduce us to a complicated relationship between two strong and layered women just trying to get by in the world in very different ways. But, again, the plot must move on, so they get only a few scenes together before focus is ripped away. And then, in the end, Loch’s sister becomes the poster child for this book’s biggest issue when she dies, and the reader—and Loch!—get only one sentence to process this, because this happens in the middle of an action scene. Places to be, people to see, worlds to save. The Bigger Picture takes over and what could have and should have been a heavy emotional moment is rendered feather-light and swatted out of the way so things can keep moving.

There’s a misplacement of priorities, is what I’m saying. The rush to get on with The Plot also renders some character explorations falling into stereotypes as shorthand. Ululenia, for example, has an arc where she must grapple with the fact that she murdered a fellow fairy creature at the end of the previous book. As a result of this, she is becoming Dark Fey and gaining a touch of the monstrous, something that builds as she is forced into more violent fights over the course of the book. Buuut any interest I had in this tense moral dilemma fizzled out into annoyance when Ululenia’s slip into villainy manifests as her becoming more overtly sexual. Granted, she gets claws and fangs, but she also gets a shorter, clingier dress and a more sensual method of her trademark hypnosis, something that numerous other characters draw attention to. It was unnecessary, and fell into what I’m sure I don’t have to tell you are dumb and outdated tropes about sexy evil women. The fangs would have been enough.

The other most egregious example is… admittedly one I’ve so far avoided talking about in all my discussions of the series, as it pertains to race, and I didn’t quite fell qualified to comment on it. Icy, the team’s resident acrobat and sneaky boy, is from the Asian-coded Empire (primarily seeming to be inspired by Imperial China) that neighbours the Republic. His backstory reveal is that he’s a trained warrior monk, capable of all sorts of amazing physical feats that are impossible to regular humans. This includes feats of dreadful violence, and in fact we learn that Icy was a soldier who led a massacre during a past war. After this, he took a pacifist vow and went on a journey of self-discovery, which involved an awful lot of meditation, hence that extreme self-control.

He is, altogether, a bit of a Mystical Zen Master character—your cool martial artist monk dude who is in touch with his chakras and hangs around in silk robes. Again, I am not Asian myself, so whether or not his portrayal (and his backstory, which is perhaps the most breezed-over of them all except for the wizard’s) are stereotypical and offensive may vary from reader to reader based on their backgrounds and perceptions. But it feels tropey to me, and I do mean that in the negative sense—tropes that follow Asian characters around are attached to Icy and end up defining him where he could have been more fleshed out, had more time and effort been devoted to him.

I’ve spent the past thousand words picking this book apart, and I want you to know that it’s precisely because I liked the first two so much that this third instalment felt like such a letdown. My standards were high! It had my emotional investment! And so it was all the more disappointing when it fizzled out in front of me. Not to say that there aren’t still some fun parts, but it didn’t match up to the enjoyment and investment of the first two books in the series. Which is a sour note to end a trilogy on, even if it does speak to the magic of the first two-thirds of it.

Would I still recommend Rogues of the Republic? I still would, just for the spunkiness and energy of those first two books (and hey, maybe someone else would have a different experience with the third book than I did). It has a fun cast of characters with a favourite for everyone, some playful and interesting worldbuilding, and some rollicking good adventures for you to enjoy if you don’t want to take your high fantasy too seriously (ironically, until the very end when the seriousness of the stakes threaten to hinder this).

But even with the third book’s shift towards the epic, it retains much of its sense of humour, and the characters and relationships that got me hooked in the first book were still there to keep me hooked through the third (even with those backstory issues). If nothing else, I think this series works as a fantastic endorsement for the power of character: well-handled characters can hook a reader even amidst chaotic prose, and a mishandling of character can take the wind out of the sails of even the most epic and otherwise rewarding story. It’s all about people, you know. For better or worse, I’m glad I met Loch and her fellow Rogues, and I’m sure I’ll be thinking fondly of them for a long time to come.

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Filed under Alex Reads

One response to “The Paladin Caper: The Gang Saves the World

  1. Pingback: Ragnarök and Roll: December ’18 Roundup | The Afictionado

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