Updated: May 19
Because we’re hoping to enter the upcoming Sparrow high fantasy novel into the 2021 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (or SPFBO), I thought that I’d investigate some of the successful 2020 entries to see what I’m up against.
I’m pretty impressed. It kept my interest, and there were very few of those eye-rolling moments that usually get me to drop the book.
I also evaluated this book against the ImmerseOrDie standard. Jefferson Smith has put a lot of thought into common mistakes that can ruin a book. Shadow only rarely violated any of these immersion-breaking rules.
So is it worth reading? Let’s get to the review.
The Fantasy Genre—Thrill of Discovery
As we read and review fantasy books during this period, we are approaching each story with this core philosophy:
The primary attraction of fantasy stories is to give the reader the thrill of new discovery without the rigors of academia.
Fantasy offers new worlds to explore, history to discover, culture and civilizations and fantastic beasts, and above all a brand new science with brand new rules; and the reader is now the Magellan, the Einstein, the Howard Carter.
A good fantasy story should spread out this discovery, keeping a consistent pace throughout the exposition. The discoveries should make sense to the reader, even if fantastically impossible, and they should always relate back to the plot later in the book.
So, how did Shadow meet this requirement?
Background & Exposition
The magic of these novels has a fairly unique and interesting origin. While Religion is the manipulation of active gods, Magic is the manipulation of dead gods. Dead gods have left behind magical essence which can be used by mages to create fantastic effects.
Samphire seems to have developed quite an intricate pantheon of gods, both living and dead. Additionally, the book mentions that there are over one hundred forms, or magical effects that can be created by mages.
Shadow takes place within just one bustling metropolis, which I thought was just right for an introductory novel. Authors often try to describe an entire world in their first books, which can be overwhelming. Samphire gently paces his exposition by describing the layout and politics of Agatos, only rarely alluding to other cities and regions.
The power structure of this city is fairly well-thought out, with three High Mages in control of the three influential spheres of society: politics, trade, and crime. These High Mages are in turn counter-balanced by an anti-magic police force called the Ash Guard.
The first-person protagonist is named Mennik Thorn, or just Nik. He’s an under-powered yet exceptionally precise mage who rejects the use of magic to obtain power and prestige. This makes him rather likeable, a personality trait that he supplements with his self-deprecating wit.
His best friend, Benny, is a self-serving, impetuous buffoon who consistently gets Nik into trouble and shows no development throughout the book.
Benny’s daughter, Sereh, is a deus ex machina who can literally assassinate anyone, steal anything, or effectively vanish into nothingness without the use of magic. She also has zero personality and the author gives her precisely one-half page of human emotion.
Nik is often chased by an anti-magic policewoman named Meroi Gale, who is confusingly described as suggestively sexy underneath non-form-fitting clothing.
The antagonist, without revealing any spoilers, has no motivation.
As you might be able to tell, I was not impressed with any of these characters, other than the protagonist.
The Action & Investigation
Shadow reads like a crime investigation novel, with a sleuth following leads and uncovering clues. This isn’t an easy narrative style, and the clues don’t always justify the conclusions that the protagonist makes. But in general, Samphire creates a compelling, page-turning mystery.
The investigation is broken up by action scenes that leave semi-real consequences for the main character. After every conflict, Nik ends up just a little more damaged, a little more tired, and a little more hungry. Sometimes this even prevents him from using his magic to resolve the next conflict, which adds a little more realism.
In fact, I think I could fairly compare this book to the Dresden Files. Nik investigates, encounters, and takes his lumps with almost as much sarcastic grace as Harry Dresden. (This is a pretty serious compliment.)
As far as my fantasy rubric is concerned, Shadow gets two thumbs up. The dynamics of Agatos and the history of religious and magical research was fascinating and perfectly-paced.
The main character is great, and there’s no denying his appeal. If the other characters weren’t so one-dimensional and unbelievable, this would easily be a five-star book.
But even though I choked on all of the side characters, I still consumed this book voraciously. And the ending of Shadow left just enough open for readers to eagerly await the sequel. I’m definitely interested in seeing if this book wins the SPFBO competition.
Have you read Shadow of a Dead God? Or any of the other finalist books from the 2020 SPFBO contest? Let us know in the comments. And as always, stay tuned for news about Sparrow’s upcoming high fantasy adventure!