Short Story Review: “The Jack of Souls” by Stephen Merlino

5 of 5 stars.

Building on the tradition of the rogue in fantasy literature, this short story creates as colorful and canny a protagonist as can be found despite the economy of words. The world-building holds its own as representatives of multiple castes–noble, free and slave alike, gather amid the gambling inns. Just enough of the cultural differences between West Isle and East Isle inhabitants and the use of color to denote social station tints the tale to suggest the deep cultural underpinnings binding the characters.

Harric is a rogue, a free bastard-child to be exact, and on the precipice of his 19th birthday. Unfortunately, he’s also cursed to die on that day thanks to his deceased, magically powerful and insane mother. He admittedly cheats and steals to his pleasure, but with a moral conscience guiding him in an unfair world. Like Lynch’s Locke Lamora, Harric has learned to play the various levels of society, turning their inclinations against them. He cannot see a way out of his death sentence. So he plans his own wake in the form of a huge party for all of the less privileged. He just needs to cheat enough money in one last hurrah to pay for the wine.

An ugly boatman [his nose cut off in some untold history] secures his invite to the wake, but suggests to Harric that only catching the eye of the gods could save him now. Harric barely gives stock to the advise, but does take the opportunity to try his hand at getting the money for the wake from a cocky West Isler who parades his colors and 14 y.o. bastard slave-girl around. Harric aims to take him for his money and give the girl her life back before he loses his if he can help it.

Highly recommended, this tale strikes every right note with cleverness and quirkiness in balanced portions.

This contest-winning tale appears in Writers of the Future 32 edited by David Farland. It’s illustrated by contest-winning artist, Maricela Ugarte Pena. I received this new anthology from Netgalley.

[Check out my other reviews here.]


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