by Tom Doyle
Tor Books has just published American Craftsmen, my first novel in a three-book modern-day fantasy series. The “craftsmen” in the title are the magician soldiers and psychic spies who’ve been secretly serving their country since colonial times. But American Craftsmen is not an alternate history; I have not changed the outcomes of any battles or wars, and the surface truths of current events remain the same. How then does a relatively small group of preternaturally powerful individuals effectively operate within the context of modern military tactics and yet remain covert, as they have for hundreds of years?
First, I chose abilities for my soldier-mages that relate to uncanny occurrences in military history. The primary power of my protagonist, Captain Dale Morton, the thing that makes him the most valuable solider-mage in the world, is his ability to change the local weather and make it better or worse. Early on in American Craftsmen, Dale uses this power to pursue a hostile sorcerer through a sandstorm. I took the idea for this magic from the number of times that the weather has altered the outcome of American battles. For instance, bad weather saved George Washington’s army at Brooklyn Heights, while an improvement in otherwise terrible weather allowed for the success of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
But the most dangerous and readily available power that a craftsman has is over his opponent’s mind. I drew this power from those instances in war where confusion scatters an army or, as in the killing of Stonewall Jackson, causes death by friendly fire. My present-day craftspeople carry precautions against such psychic warfare, but these don’t save Dale Morton from an opponent’s curse, a curse that will by twists and turns lead him to the demonic horrors corrupting the heart of American magic.
In contrast to this power of confusion or subornation, sometimes a military leader seems to possess a preternatural charisma to rally troops or exercise authority. So one of my characters, Colonel Hutchinson, has the ability to steady the nerves of combatants, while another, Major Endicott, has an extraordinary power of command.
Finally, to be the elites among other elite operatives, my magician soldiers need powers that enhance their combat skill and strength. They aren’t superheroes, but they can endure a bit more, heal a bit quicker, and shoot a bit better than normal soldiers. When fighting, craftspeople often enter an acceleration mode that I based on the sense that some soldiers have of time stretching out during combat.
Such abilities come with limitations. My magical system is not just a binary of infinite power with a fatal flaw, à la Superman versus kryptonite and other comic book superheroes. For my characters, magic is more like a normal physical ability. A soldier’s craft improves with practice, much the same as her mundane shooting skill. A well-rested and healthy craftsperson will have more power than one who hasn’t slept or is wounded. Craftspeople in all-out combat will exhaust themselves within an hour at most.
Why do my magical soldiers bother with rifles? First, a variation on the magical Law of Return or karmic retribution makes killing by spell more dangerous to the practitioner than simply shooting someone. Furthermore, the laws of physics aren’t suspended by magic, just skewed, and it takes a great deal of magical energy to replicate the physical damage a soldier can do by just pulling a trigger. That magical energy might not be readily available, for like other armaments, magic has logistical issues. Craftspeople find it easier to recharge their power on home ground.
Some of my magic system runs at cross purposes to normal modern military tactics. I have too few practitioners for purely magical units, so craftspeople often serve with mundane soldiers. But to preserve their secrecy, craftspeople don’t serve for extended times with mundane units, so they don’t become integrated with them either. This situation creates numerous inefficiencies and can in some instances contribute to disasters, such as what happens to Dale Morton at the opening of the novel.
Still, even with such limitations, why don’t these elite magical troops completely dominate the action of battles throughout history and thus reveal themselves to all? This is similar to a common question about superheroes during the Second World War, and the answer is similar as well: in combat, craftspeople often engage the enemy’s practitioners, and the winner in that part of the fight will perhaps only be left with a slight but potentially decisive edge in the battle at large.
To conclude, I’d like to thank Thomas Evans and the Archaeologist’s Guide to the Galaxy for this opportunity to describe the military magic of American Craftsmen. If you’d like to read or listen to other stories of mine, please go to http://www.tomdoyleauthor.com.
About Tom Doyle:
The Internet Review of Science Fiction has hailed TOM DOYLE’s writing as “beautiful & brilliant.” Locus Magazine has called his stories “fascinating,” “transgressive,” “witty,” “moving,” and “intelligent and creepy.” A graduate of the Clarion Writing Workshop, Doyle has won the WSFA Small Press Award and third prize in the Writers of the Future contest.