The Armored Saint by Myke Cole
A quick reader can sprint through The Armored Saint in a few hours, but this is not a negative. From the moment a young woman and her father are almost murdered by soldiers for not sufficiently debasing themselves, Cole’s book starts running and doesn’t stop. What most impressed me about Cole’s writing is how well he balances scenes of brutal violence against the small stretches of tender quiet between. It was these grounded, intimate moments that made me so fond of his young protagonist, Heloise.
This is a lean book with no wasted pages, and the way Cole’s fantasy world is thoroughly screwed up is clear from his first chapter. In this world, there are wizards, and any wizard who uses magic eventually has a portal open inside their eye. A portal that opens onto Hell. There, devils wait in the darkness to emerge and devour the living, or so all people are taught by the legends of their dead god-Emperor and his Palantines: warriors who defeated the devils a thousand years ago, dying to seal them away.
Blessed by the dead Emperor, the Sojourner and his Pilgrims (the soldiers who almost murdered Heloise and her father for not debasing themselves sufficiently) are known as the Order, and their holy task is to root out and eliminate wizards before they can become portals to hell. Torturing people until they betray suspected friends or family members? Absolutely! Murdering any whom the Order suspect of wizardry, without evidence or a trial? Not a problem! Even the massacre of an entire village and its “wizard-touched” men, women, and children (a horrific event known as a “Knitting”) is a tolerated, even accepted action by the Sojourner and his Pilgrims, because the holy Writ left by the dead Emperor assures this world’s inhabitants that anything less risks demons clawing out of hell and devouring everyone alive.
This dark and often brutal world is where Heloise lives, now sixteen and questioning everything. Those she cares for often refer to her as “a woman almost grown” and this label both comforts and infuriates her. On the one hand, she’s still young enough that she can trust her father and others to protect her from dangers. On the other, she feels trapped by traditions she tolerates to live, caged by expectations.
While Heloise sees the inherent wrongness of her world and burns to challenge it, she always steps back when given the chance to resist, not for herself — were it just her, she would fight — but out of fear for those who would suffer if she did fight. Her family, her friends, and, should the Order judge her defiance sufficiently heretical, her entire village. It is by learning of Heloise’s fear for others, not herself, that we see how the Order and their distant master have established their blood-soaked grip on the world.
For the commoners struggling simply to live, the arrival of the Order is as terrifying as any devil, and many Pilgrims abuse their power as flagrantly as brigands. While resistance has risen and fallen before (a long-settled war is occasionally referenced) Cole makes it clear why his commoners toil in silence. When a Knitting occurs, it is not just the Order who kills. They press all people near the village into the massacre, and even a hint of defiance means their families and village may be next. After ruthless holy soldiers force them to murder their neighbor’s children, it’s no surprise so many fear for their own.
Yet despite Heloise’s crippling fear for those she loves and all the dangers of her world, she does fight, eventually, for reasons that make perfect and inexorable sense. The intimate, personal journey leading to the moment Heloise resists is the core of The Armored Saint, and I’m hesitant to delve into specific twists and turns because I found her journey so gripping and, in one case, genuinely surprising. Instead, I’ll summarize what this book offers fans of SFF, grimdark, and any gripping tale.
Do you like grimdark? This book is dark AF, and not in a gimmicky, flashy, “look how edgy I can be!” way. Instead, the darkness is the relentless presence of unease, the constant feeling that terrible events are around the corner and there’s nothing Heloise can do to stop them. Even when Heloise and her allies win victories, they are never easy, and characters who might be safe in a lighter book are not safe at all.
Speaking of characters, do you like those? Well, you’ve got some great ones here. As our sole POV character, Heloise is sympathetic, impetuous, flawed, and believable. There were times I screamed at her for doing something foolish while completely understanding why she’d do it. Her family, friends, and fellow villagers are also colorful and interesting, particularly a “ranger” who knows far more about the truth behind the holy Writ than he reveals, and a blacksmith who builds steampunk war-machines.
Finally, let’s talk about those war-machines. This book is called The Armored Saint, and so, yes, it does have armored steampunk mech suits that can knock down doors and crush mounted knights with their giant shields. In another book, the existence of these armored titans might trivialize the dangers facing Heloise and her allies, but these war-machines are used sparingly, and by the time they do show up, I was already wishing there were more of them in the fight. Yes, things get that bad.
While I heartily recommend this book, I offer one caution. The Armored Saint is not a complete story, though it is a compelling one. It is the first act of a larger tale, and its conflicts are not resolved to the point where any reader can walk away after reading. While this normally annoys me in a first book, I felt enough was resolved to tide me over until the sequel, and I can say that the book does not end on a cliffhanger. Instead, it ends with those who survived at a crossroads, and given Cole has two trilogies under his belt, I’m confident he’ll bring this one home … and anxious to learn what happens next.
If anything you’re read about Heloise, her journey, and her dark but fascinating world interests you, you should pick up The Armored Saint right now. I want to keep reading about Heloise and her struggle to protect those she loves, and that won’t happen unless readers prove they are invested in the series. If you’ve liked Cole’s earlier work, you’ll love this, and if you haven’t read him before, this is a great start.