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Literature / Talion: Revenant

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Talion: Revenant is a fantasy novel written by Michael Stackpole and completed in 1986 but not published until 1997, since it was considered too long for a starting writer. It centers around the character of Nolan ra Sinjaria, a Talion Justice who pursues criminals and who people widely fear due to his ability to kill by sucking the soul from someone's body with the magical death's head tattoo on his right hand. Nolan however is a good, honorable man (though he does have his bad moments), who dislikes that Talions are feared (especially Justices) and unlike some of his colleagues works to earn the respect of the people he protects instead of preying on their fears. He was orphaned when his country Sinjaria was conquered by its neighbor Hamis, and joined the Talions (an order that maintains stability in the rivalrous kingdoms) with the hope of someday bringing the man he holds responsible, King Tirrell of Hamis, to justice. Now, though, he has been ordered by his masters to protect that same king from a dire threat to his throne, and while he reluctantly obeys, some of the ghosts of his past begin to return...

Stackpole is publishing a sequel, Talion: Nemesis, in serial novel form in his Scratch! e-zine on Patreon.

Warning, spoilers ahead.

This book provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Aerith and Bob: Alongside names like Nolan, Marana and Lothar, we have Eric, Hal and Malcolm.
  • Anachronic Order: Every chapter alternates between the present day, when Nolan is a Talion, and his past where he was a novice, explaining how we got here.
  • And the Adventure Continues: At the end, once he's defeated the villains and thwarted the Hamisian plot, Nolan rides away with Morai to have another adventure.
  • Arc Words: "A tool is just a tool, unless it does the job by itself."
  • As You Know: Done many times, though it's mostly while introducing things they don't previously know (or in Nolan's case, internally reflecting) so the usage is more plausible than most.
  • Bastard Bastard: Brede ulRia, the Bastard of Ria (technically he may not be a bastard in the illegitimate sense, as his mother's confession that he was is seen as false, but in the word's other meaning he certainly is).
  • Batman Gambit: A successful one is set up by His Excellency, Lord of Services, and later Marana nearly succeeds with another.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Ul", as the illegitimate descendants of the royal families are known (ulRia, ulHamis, ulPatria, etc.) is Arabic for "of", and specifically refers to illegitimate sons with the phrase ibn ul haram-"son of forbidden" (being called this is a huge insult in Arab culture).
  • Body Horror: The specialty of Chi'gandir, a dark sorcerer who twists people's bodies into horrible shapes with magic and then extorts payment from them to cancel the spell. Thankfully a spell's effect ends with the death of the caster in this 'verse.
  • Bury Your Disabled: Nolan's little brother Aruk had a clubfoot, and was specifically targeted when his family were murdered by a soldier whose culture says this means he'd been touched by a demon in the womb, thus worthy of death.
  • The Chessmaster: His Excellency, Lord of Services. Nolan deeply resents being used by him, especially when it results in harm to those he cares about.
  • Compelling Voice: The Call, a Talion ability. It can do things like compel people to answer questions or obey orders. We're not show what limits it has, if any.
  • Counterspell: The Tingus Lurker who Nolan faces off with near the end uses one to stop him simply drawing the guy's soul out. He therefore has to kill the man the old fashioned way.
  • Covers Always Lie: The original paperback edition features a scene on the cover that is nowhere in the book. It's not even clear which characters it's supposed to depict, though presumably Nolan is one of them.
  • Culture Clash: Discussed as the reason Nolan is chosen for undercover work in Hamis posing as a Sinjarian lord. Only someone from the region knows every little custom, which could give an undercover agent away otherwise. It's demonstrated by something as small as peeling an apple in a specific way. Nolan also encountered some very serious examples previously, such as a Daari who attacks him since he's a Talion (who his culture teaches means he's demonically possessed) then an old woman in Temur who tells him to kill Marana because she's a "demon twin" (i.e. second born identical twin).
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Daari have a harsh, violent culture strongly based on fighting demons (whether real or not is unrevealed). They ritually scar their faces to ward these off, made war on the Talions in the past (believing them to be demonically possessed) and slaughter anyone with physical disabilities over a belief they've been touched by demons.
    • Temuri culture teaches that a second identical twin is a demon, and has to be left for dead. This happened to Marana. It's mentioned that there female infants in general are often exposed too however.
  • Duel to the Death: Between Nolan and Lothar over Marana. Also near the end with Captain Herman.
  • Easily Forgiven: Nolan lets King Tirrell of Hamas completely off the hook for invading and conquering his homeland, Sinjaria, which killed thousands of people including Nolan's entire family. It's true that Tirrell seems somewhat remorseful over it, even offering to abdicate in favor of Nolan, but he doesn't even make him withdraw and give Sinjaria independence.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Chi'gandir, who used magic to change people's shapes and then extorts them for reversing it.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture:
    • Some of the Uls live like stereotypical Romani, traveling around in colorful caravans and telling fortunes (although they aren't viewed or portrayed as thieves/child kidnappers).
    • Temur has some resemblance to Afghanistan, with a tribal and clan-based society with a central government which has limited power beyond the city which is its capitol, plus the women having low status. A possible resemblance to medieval Mongolia also exists, with the frequent clan wars and Temuri being expert horse archers.
    • The Shattered Empire going by its description also was like the Roman Empire, the provinces then becoming new independent states after it fell apart, but many vestiges still exist from that era into the present (such as the Talions, who had been established by one of the Emperors but live on afterward).
    • Sensoth is not actually shown, but it seems to be the equivalent of a medieval African kingdom from what's seen of its people in the book.
  • Feuding Families: The Temuri are a clan-based, tribal society with frequent wars between them. However, customs have been established to limit the wars by the central government so they don't grow too vicious.
  • Forced to Watch: Nolan had to watch (somehow-it isn't clear how he saw this) and listen while his family was murdered. His mother and sister, it's indicated, were raped first.
  • Forced Transformation: Chi'gander specialized in this, subjecting people to horrific transformations and extorting them for reversing them. Later he also shrinks Weylan's body to child size too, but that was apparently simply for fun.
  • Foreshadowing: The book switches between the present and past each chapter, setting up plot points for fulfillment. In particular the frequently quoted proverb "A tool is just a tool, unless it does the job by itself" is said long before its most important reference near the end.
  • Giant Flyer: Talion Elites ride Imperial Hawks, which are six feet tall even when fleglings, and grow big enough to carry off cattle after getting full grown.
  • Healing Factor: Having rhasa souls in your body allows a person to use them for this.
  • Heroic Fantasy: The book's genre. It centers around Nolan's quest to stop a bandit leader, and later protect a king.
  • Hidden Elf Village: A literal example. Nolan discusses the fact that the elves have a city hidden deep in the vast woods where they live, but no human has ever seen this since fierce warrior clans patrol the outskirts to insure it's kept safe and kill any intruders (except for children).
  • Info Dump: Nolan fills in a character within the first few pages about the nature and history of the Talions, so that the reader will also be informed. Later several others occur, either in conversations with other people or sometimes just his internal thoughts. It's given in-story justifications since the characters are either learning things, or in Nolan's case thinking of something he's just learned about.
  • Insistent Terminology: He is Nolan ra Sinjaria, not ra Hamis. Being called the latter (due to Hamis annexing Sinjaria) gets him angry.
  • Karma Houdini: Morai. He isn't a bad sort, but he rides with completely evil characters, putting innocent people's lives in danger, and he's still a bandit, albeit one who isn't shown to harm people himself. Even Nolan, who spent years chasing him, doesn't bring him to justice, apparently because of his help.
  • King Incognito: It turns out that Nolan is a prince, and has a claim to the throne of Hamis.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Despite chasing him all throughout the book (and before its events) for banditry, Nolan lets off Morai in the end, grateful due to his help with exposing the Hamisian plot. Plus Morai's simply just that charming, even Nolan comes to like him.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Marana encounters her long-lost twin sister on a mission, which due to the circumstances drives her insane.
  • Love Triangle: Between Nolan, Marana and Lothar. Lothar doesn't take her leaving him for Nolan very well...
  • Meanwhile, in the Future…: The story cycles between Nolan's present and past, starting with the former, showing how he became a Talion with events leading up to where he's found himself.
  • Mercy Kill: Nolan kills Marana in the end, with them both treating it as merciful, since she's now homicidally mad and just wants to die.
  • No Name Given: His Excellency, Lord of Services, whose name is never revealed. The same goes for the Master of all Talions, who's only referred to as this.
  • No Ontological Inertia: Played straight, as it's stated the effect of wizard's spells don't last beyond their own deaths.
  • Offered the Crown: King Tirrell offers to abdicate in Nolan's favor near the end of the book. Nolan originally dreamed of this, but by then turns it down, having grown beyond the desire.
  • Offing the Offspring: Marana was found on a hill in Temur. It's speculated she was left to die, though female infanticide is described as rare in the Shattered Empire. Later it's revealed they did this because she's a twin, which her people believe is demonic. They kept her sister, but exposed Marana.
  • The Order: The Talions, who are an international organization which keeps the balance of power between the countries that rose from the Shattered Empire, defends them against common threats and stops criminals who cross borders. Created originally by the old Empire (before its Shattering) the Talions outlived their creators. They are divided into different branches, each with their own function, the Justices being the oldest with others added over time.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Nolan's whole family was murdered, and he joined the Talions in hopes of someday taking revenge on the person he holds responsible. He's still traumatized about it years after.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: They're called the Dhesiri, to start with, they catch humans to eat, live in underground warrens, their society is similar to ants' (they have a massive hive queen who produces them all), their warriors are eight feet tall...
  • Our Souls Are Different: Souls can be drawn out of the body by a Talion Justice. This kills the person, but some souls retain their vitality, although not memories, and are called rhasas. Talion Justices must be cleansed of these souls in a special ritual. A rhasa soul can be placed into a corpse and this reanimates it, along with this leaving the undead being stronger, quicker and easier to train. A person can also use them to enhance or heal themselves. Souls appear as colored lights, rhasas being white.
  • Revenant Zombie: Nekkehts are this, as indicated by the book's name. They are reanimated using a particular kind of captured soul named rhasa and can be used for any number of things by whoever controls them. A nekkeht retains their skills, though not memories, when its body is in good condition.
  • Revenge: Nolan seeks this at first against the man who he's blamed for his family's murders. In the end though he realizes the man isn't malicious (and there's no evidence he'd actually ordered their deaths), so Nolan relents, subverting it.
  • Riches to Rags: Nolan's ancestors, apparently. He's descended from a prince who went into exile and had a family, while his descendants ended up being peasants.
  • Rightful King Returns: Subverted. Once we learn that Nolan holds a claim to Hamis, it looks like the story is shaping up this way. King Tirrell even offers to abdicate, but Nolan declines the throne.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The Shattered Empire. It's the kingdoms formed by the provinces of a former empire that split apart.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Nolan is left traumatized by his family's murder, and has nightmares about it when events trigger flashbacks.
    • Marana meanwhile is left completely unhinged after a traumatic encounter with her long-lost twin sister, becoming completely deluded and murderous afterward.
  • Summon to Hand: Talions (or at least Justices) can summon their weapons from afar. Obviously, this comes in handy at times.
  • Sympathetic Magic: Sorcerers need something of a person to affect them with spells, like blood or hair.
  • Token Minority: Countess Jamila, who's half Stelosian (a black African counterpart) and Marana (who was born to a people which seem to be equivalent to Berbers or Arabs). All of the rest come from the European counterparts. A few more Stelosians also appear: the ambassador to Hamis and bodyguards of his (Jamila's father had been the previous Stelosian ambassador). Jamila also has a young son with her Hamisian noble husband, who's the only character of mixed heritage.
  • Trauma Button: Finding the bodies of a family murdered by bandits triggers Nolan's memories of his own relatives being murdered, which causes him nightmares about it.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: An extensive flashback is shown of how Nolan's family were murdered, which caused him to become a Talion in hopes of getting revenge.
  • Wandering Culture: Many of the Uls (people descended from disinherited royalty) live this way. The Ulbands are travelers who live in painted wagons, often living as fortunetellers, with their vehicles and clothing known for having vivid colors. Given there is a lot of prejudice toward them as some uls have started civil wars trying to take their thrones back, there is some similarity with Roma and Irish Travellers.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: His Excellency, Lord of Services again. Though he understands and feels sorry about the cost of his schemes, he also thinks its necessary to keep chaos from descending on the kingdoms. He appears to be right in that.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: When Nolan's family is murdered, he sees and hears it all, even though he was not in a position where he'd be able to. Magical remote viewing or something could be the explanation, but the book never mentions that, and he is explicitly said to not have magic. Also, his family was specifically targeted because they had a birthright claim to the throne of the invading country, but it is never revealed who ordered it, and Nolan does not even try to find out, nor is it shown how the enemy knew. It's also never made clear exactly what a Tingis Lurker is, except for some manner of magic user, nor what significance the tattoo around their left eyes have.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • The soldiers who came for Nolan's family had no compunction about murdering the children too.
    • Marana was left to die as a baby by her family due to being considered demonic.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Talions have the power to suck a person's soul out of their body with the magical death's head tattoo which they get. In their case, this kills whoever they use it on. Usually they don't gain anything this way except an easy means of killing someone, and the souls are cleansed with a special ritual. A few though retain their vitality and can be used to reanimate corpses in an enhanced manner. An enhancement is also possible of the person holding them.