Monday, 21 June 2010
Book review: Shadow's Son
By Jon Sprunk
(Gollancz, 8 July 2010)
Assassins seem to be becoming the dominant figures in epic fantasy these days. While they don't yet have a stranglehold over the subgenre the way vampires do in the paranormal romance sector, they certainly appear to be in the ascendency. Brent Weeks' popular Night Angel trilogy arguably started the recent trend, which has been carried on by new authors Col Buchanan, in his debut novel Farlander, and now US debutant Jon Sprunk in his novel Shadow's Son.
The novel's protagonist is Caim, a freelance assassin working out of the city of Othir. After one particular assignment goes wrong, Caim realises he's been set up - and the only person who might be able to offer an explanation as to who is behind it all is the daughter of the man he was meant to kill. Unfortunately for Caim, this unknown enemy also want to get their hands on the daughter - Josie - for their own sinister reasons. Before long, Caim finds himself embroiled in a sinister game of conspiracy, with Othir's future as the stakes. If he is to stand any chance of survival, Caim is going to have to look inside himself and unleash the darkness that he has been holding back all these years...
The greatest asset of Shadow's Son is the sheer pace at which the story unfolds. The story rips along at speed, aided by short chapters and a pleasing lack of unnecessary detail or exposition. Furthermore, the plot is crafted well and enough hints are dropped throughout to keep the reader guessing, with the pay-off coming further down the line as various revelations come to light. Sprunk also manages to engineer one or two twists that keep things interesting.
The other elements of the novel are much more of a mixed bag.
Caim is a solid protagonist and - despite his profession - is easy to empathise with. His motivations are believable and partly drive both the plot and his personal development, while his background - and unnerving ability to control shadows - creates an air of mystery about him. His companion Kit - an ethereal, spirit-like young woman - is another intriguing figure, at least in terms of what her possible origins are.
Josie on the other hand, is a walking stereotype - a whinging adolescent who quickly grows up and matures into a headstrong, independent young woman over the space of a couple of weeks. Needless to say she's also beautiful, and the way her relationship develops with Caim can be seen coming from a mile off. While generally this relationship is handled well, there are unrealistic moments (such as when she and Caim are falling from a pier towards the sea, yet Josie is strangely preoccupied with marveling at how taught Caim's muscles are beneath his clothes).
The rest of the characterisation is uneven: Levictus is a brooding, sinister menace, though his backstory is a little rushed and would have benefited from more exploration to fully flesh his motives out. In truth, this is true of many of the major players in the novel: Ral and Vassili are defined well enough, but lack sufficient depth to truly explain their motives and smooth their rough edges. They're engaging enough, just a little superficial at times. The worst culprit though is Markus, who rarely rises above the level of pantomime villain.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the characterisation though is the lack of strong female characters, with the arguable exception of Kit. Josie is little more than a damsel in (very frequent) distress and constantly requires rescuing, while the rest of the females in the novel are either tavern 'wenches' (a terribly clichéd word that I would be happy never to see used again) or prostitutes. I suppose you could argue that this merely reflects the male-dominated nature of Sprunk's world, though personally I prefer to see some strong females challenging such gender conventions.
Speaking of Sprunk's world, it's portrayed well enough but ultimately it's nothing you've not seen before numerous times. It's a feudal medieval world, with all the usual trappings. While not inherently a problem - and to be fair it serves its purpose - it nonetheless lacks the depth you find from those of other authors working in the genre. Sprunk does deserve credit though for placing the focus firmly on the story and characters, and not the world (which is the way it should be).
Sprunk's prose, on the whole, is a positive point: while he won't be winning plaudits for style, his writing is sharp and flows well. As mentioned above, he doesn't allow unnecessary details to bog down his narrative, and he handles exposition well. The only flaw in his prose is his insistence on using similes in his descriptive writing - this is a reliance Sprunk needs to overcome in future books, mainly because many of the similes he uses in Shadow's Son simply aren't that good, and add nothing to the descriptive quality of his prose.
Other details niggle as well. The surfacing of a major cliché halfway through the book isn't particularly welcome, Kit seems to vanish on a whim when it suits the plot and for no other discernible purpose, while the book's climax is marred by over-dramatic dialogue and an encroaching sense of predictability. The ascendency of one character to a position of power, despite apparently having no evidence at all to support their right to that position, was also rather hard to swallow.
Verdict: Shadow's Son undoubtedly has its flaws, namely its uneven characterisation, a reliance on cliché and stereotype, and a rather generic world. Yet its story is constructed well (save for perhaps the predictable final act) and unfolds at great pace, with plenty of action and intrigue along the way. Caim is a decent protagonist, and his development and relationship with Josie are handled well. A flawed novel then, but a reasonably entertaining one. Hopefully the next instalment in the trilogy will tread less familiar ground.