Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Book review: Shadow Prowler

Shadow Prowler

By Alexey Pehov

(Simon and Schuster, 1 April 2010)

Alexey Pehov, by all accounts, is something of a genre superstar in his Russian homeland. His books - which have sold over a million copies - have won various awards, and are among the most popular fantasy novels in Russia. His first book Shadow Prowler - known as Stealth in the Shadows in his native Russia - has been heralded (rather bizarrely) by X-Men creator Chris Claremont as "an exciting take on classical themes." According to Pehov's website, Shadow Prowler was sold to both Tor in the USA and Simon and Schuster in the UK, both in six-figure deals.

Not bad going for a book that allegedly began life as a piece of fanfiction based on the popular Thief video games series.

Then again, perhaps 'began life' is a spurious phrase - by all accounts Stealth in the Shadows was still fanfiction when it was published in Russia; the main character - a thief - was even called Garrett, which is the name of the protagonist from the Thief games. The protagonist's name was changed to 'Harold' when the book was picked up for US/UK publication (presumably for fear of a lawsuit), though amusingly they didn't quite manage to eradicate all the references to his former name: on page 374 of Shadow Prowler, Harold is referred to by another character as 'Garrett' - a jarring reminder of the novel's dubious origins.

Still, to judge any book based on its background is to do it a disservice; as we all know, you have to review the book itself, not the noise that comes with it.

So, Shadow Prowler. A book in which the RELUCTANT HERO™ - a thief by the name of Garrett Shadow Harold - must embark on a DANGEROUS QUEST™ to retrieve the MAGICAL ARTIFACT™ in order to defeat the EVIL DARK LORD™ known as THE NAMELESS ONE™ who wants to DESTROY THE WORLD™.

You think I'm joking? I wish. I try not to be too sarcastic in reviews, but in this case I think I'm justified. It's no exaggeration to say that Shadow Prowler is probably the most derivative, clichéd fantasy novel I think I've ever read - and given some of the rubbish I've read in my time, that's saying something.

Honestly, the extent to which Pehov has just trotted out the same old tropes - not to mention ripped off other sources - is staggering.

Don't get me wrong; clichés are not necessarily a bad thing - they're clichés because they've been overused, and they've been overused because they're popular. There's nothing wrong with using them - so long as you do something different with them. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, just riff on a familiar trope and try and spin it in a different direction.

In Shadow Prowler, Pehov makes no such attempt to freshen up these overfamiliar tropes. And that's easily the novel's greatest failing: it just regurgitates the same old storyline that you've seen hundreds of times before and brings nothing new whatsoever. Oh sure, Pehov's dwarves don't have beards and his elves have fangs, but so what? These are merely token gestures that serve no purpose whatsoever and are classic examples of "change for change's sake" which is never a good thing. Regardless of their appearances, the dwarves and elves still act much as you'd expect them to.

As if this reliance on such a tired premise wasn't bad enough, Shadow Prowler is further undermined by what appears to be sheer laziness on Pehov's part when it comes to the history of his world, and the novel's backstory.

For example, we're told that the Nameless One (who was once called Grok, so he's not actually nameless at all) refused to aid his noble brother (who, bizarrely, is also called Grok) during a battle, and so was executed for treason. Except that we're not told why he failed to aid his brother. Apparently, "history is silent on that question." Indeed. Nor is a valid explanation offered for why the one artifact that can stop the Nameless One (who has somehow survived his execution, though that's not explained either) was hidden for 'safekeeping' in one of the most dangerous, hostile locations in the kingdom. Perhaps it's just me, but taking the one thing that can help you against your enemy and hiding it in a location that will be extremely difficult to recover it from, just strikes me as unbelievably stupid. Yet this is one of the fundamental problems with Shadow Prowler - so much of the backstory has clearly been devised to support the plot, leaving gaping holes in the novel's internal logic.

The laziness doesn't end there. Not content with falling back on the most clichéd premise in the epic fantasy genre, Pehov has also ripped much of his world's magic straight out of D&D: we have fireballs, we have one-use scrolls, we have fire- and cold-imbued crossbow bolts, and we have wizards that have to memorise spells before they can cast them. All lifted straight from the annals of D&D. It's brazen to the point of being appalling. Embarrassing, even.

The writing is no better. Admittedly, given that Shadow Prowler has been translated from Russian, it's hard to know how much of the prose's fluency has been lost in translation. The answer is either a hell of a lot, or that the writing was just poor in the first place. The actual prose is not that bad; it's rather stiff at times, but ultimately it's serviceable. Unfortunately Pehov has no idea how to handle exposition, with the result that the first few chapters of Shadow Prowler descend into a truly terrifying mess of info-dumps that completely ruin the flow of the narrative. Worse, Pehov feels the need to tell the reader everything about a particular creature when we meet it for the first time. So, Harold will find himself in a confrontation with a peculiar creature, but before the action can commence, we have to put up with several paragraphs giving us a brief run-down of the creature's habits and characteristics (get used to it, as this trait appears as early as the second page). It's painfully amateurish and only serves to suck whatever tension there is straight out of the scenes.

Shadow Prowler's plot offers little in the way of excitement. The first half of the book is set-the-scene stuff (quite literally; we have pages and pages of endless exposition) and also sees a rather odd sub-plot play out (which seems to have no apparent relevance to anything important). The second half witnesses Harold and his bunch of companions setting out on their venture, with a distinct lack of twists and turns on the way. There's a few incidents here and there, but for the most part it's all rather pedestrian and almost entirely lacking in excitement or tension. There's nothing interesting to be found in Pehov's world either. It's a depressingly bog-standard world of kings, wizards, orcs and elves. There's even a place called the 'Desolate Lands'. Well, the dark lord has got to live somewhere, right?

Characterisation is perhaps the one aspect where Pehov shows a glimmer of ability, and the likability of his characters was the only thing that kept me reading. Harold, as a protagonist, lacks depth and possesses no intriguing quirks or flaws. Yet he does possess a certain wry humour, and as the story is told in the first person, his narrative does inject a bit of lighthearted humour to the proceedings. The goblin jester Kli-Kli brings further humour; he's a genuinely amusing little fellow that is good fun to read about. The gnome and dwarf duo of Hallas and Deler, and their constant sniping, provides further entertainment.

There are other isolated flashes of Pehov's ability. The chapters of the novel set in the city's 'Forbidden Territory' are handled well and are vastly more interesting than anything else in the novel; Pehov can do tension and intrigue when he really tries. Furthermore, the 'flashback' chapters (depicting incidents that often happened hundreds of years before) are arguably the strongest in the book, and are written in third-person, which seems to suit Pehov much better. They're the only moments when the novel seems to get anywhere near to the quality you'd expect from a book that was sold for such high sums.

Speaking of the sums involved, I'm bemused by Simon and Schuster's decision to take this novel on. To my knowledge, they've not had a fantasy imprint since they closed down Earthlight, and this apparent lack of expertise appears painfully obvious with this particular deal. They've shown no understanding of the current state of the genre, and have offered a huge amount of money for the kind of novel that peddles a brand of fantasy that the genre has more or less left behind. Sure, no doubt some readers still go for this sort of thing, but if you look at the popular authors in the genre these days, none of them are writing this sort of book anymore.

Verdict: For the most part, Shadow Prowler is a mess of lazily-used clichés, uninspired worldbuilding, amateurish writing and linear plotting. Some relief is provided by a few of the more amusing characters, and now and again Pehov shows hints of genuine ability. Yet this isn't enough to save a novel that represents the end of the fantasy spectrum that the genre has thankfully been moving away from (in other words, sub-par, unimaginative Tolkien rip-offs). There's nothing new here. To some readers, that might be an attraction in itself. But even so, this is a story that has been told a million times - and far better than it is here. 


Lenore Appelhans said...

For some strange reason, I was sent this for review (unsolicited) despite my intense dislike of high fantasy and quest novels. Needless to say, I won't be reading it. I very much enjoyed your review though! Sorry to had to wade through such dreck.

James said...

You know, I actually like quest fantasy - it's what I grew up on, and it still really appeals to me. But I need some originality, some vibrancy - not the same old shit slapped out without care or consideration. Which is why Shadow Prowler didn't work for me.

Jebus said...

I loved the first two Thief games (didn't play the third) and their writing was fantastic, it's rather amusing to imagine this came from those great games.

I too like quest fantasy but I reckon I'll be giving this one a complete miss. Good review.

Kevin S. said...

Lots of people have started off writing stuff that was really derivative of Tolkien and D&D. But when it gets to the point where you get the creature's Monster Manual entry and Dragon magazine ecology article when you meet it, that's way too much. I'm glad I've been warned away from this one.

AlWinchester said...

Thank you for great review!

I read Shadow Prowler in Russian and can said that this is Pehov's worst thing and I was mildly surprised when I heard that this book was chosen to be translated into English.

But this is the first novelle of Pehov and his next books are better. In second and third parts his writing skills are improving, but still in Chronicles of Siala there to much clishes.

Still I read russian reviews for English edition and can say that the translator make some mistakes and corrections and english text differs from original.

Marc said...

I agree with you 100%. I could not even make it through the 1st half of the book.

ediFanoB said...

I seems my mind is insane - why? - because I liked SHADOW PROWLER.
Maybe it has something to do with the environment. I read it while cycling at the gym. I agree with you that it is clichéd and of course it is far beyond to be a masterpiece of fantasy but I liked it. For me it was light entertainment. Just the right thing while cycling on a stationary bike.

Sebert said...

The fact that novels like this sell so well is partly responsible for the bad image fantasy fiction often has. If someone only picks up the novels from the besteller lists with a big ad budget, who can blame them if they think that fantasy always is the same boring thing?

Its Thief origins also pain me a lot, because I am a die hard Thief fan for 10 years now, imo it is the greatest game franchise ever created (next to zelda maybe ;)) ! The original missions were well written and thoroughly crafted, and the community created so many extensions and fan missions that those old games are still alive. That the name of this novel is uttered in the same sentence as Thief is insufferable !

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%.


James said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Jebus - you ought to check out the third Thief game - I liked it more than the first two, though I think I'm in the minority there.

AlWinchester - that's the problem with translations - there's always going to be errors and often the little nuances of the native language get lost in the process.

ediFonoB - nothing wrong with you liking it! Everyone has different tastes. It just wasn't for me, but that doesn't mean others won't like it (or should feel guilty for liking it).

Sebert - exactly; that's one reason why I decided to give Simon and Schuster a bit of a slap-down over this, as clearly they have no idea that the fantasy genre has moved on from this sort of thing. I enjoyed the Thief series as well. Sadly Shadow Prowler doesn't come close to replicating the fascinating world of the games.