Thren Felhorn is the master of the Spider Guild, the supreme collective under which Thren has united all the thieves’ guilds in the city of Veldaren. In the prologue of A Dance of Cloaks, author David Dalglish has given Thren two sons, Randith and Aaron, and placed the guilds on the brink of war with the Trifect, three wealthy families that wield most of the political power in a land where the king is young, foolish and easily manipulated. By the end of the prologue, though, only Aaron can claim his father’s favor, which he gains by one clearly filial act and one shocking act that is the act of a son only because his father ordered it. The brutal flavor of this book is thus established quickly and efficiently, and the reader knows that she is in for a story of ruthless people.
Five years have passed since the events of the prologue when the body of the book opens. Aaron is in training with Robert Haern, whose techniques are eccentric; but he was once the tutor of the king, before the king refused his corrections, and Thren wants the best for his heir. Haern’s initial lessons for Aaron allow Dalglish to give us the history of the land and the reasons for the war between the thieves and the Trifect, as well as the religious and political background necessary to understand the rest of the novel, but the conversation feels natural and unforced; it is an infodump handled with care.
The action picks up quickly thereafter, however, as new characters from both the thieves’ world and the world of the Trifect are introduced. Kayla, who sells information to any willing buyer and ultimately becomes allied with Thren, and Robert do their part to shape the young Aaron, not always in a manner his father would approve. To the contrary, they attempt to make him a better man, less ruthless, someone with a conscience.
That struggle is only one of many in this complex book. There is a struggle between the adherents of two different gods, both of which seem to be real and present in this world, allowing their clergy to wield magic. There is a struggle between the daughter of one of the Trifect and her father, and between her and an upstart family that seeks its own position of power. There is a struggle between the three members of the Trifect as to the proper way to win the war with Thren’s thieves. There is a struggle between the various guilds that are allied under Thren’s leadership. And there is Aaron’s own internal struggle, between the vicious killer his father wants to sculpt him into and the more compassionate, loving, and strong man he seems to want to be.
Indeed, there are so many struggles that it is at first difficult to keep all the plotlines straight in one’s mind, and so many characters that it is hard to remember who is who. Dalglish does not sufficiently distinguish some of his characters well, especially those who are female. And Dalglish occasionally becomes so caught up in the complications he creates for his characters that he forgets to include any motivation for some of their desires or actions (why is Kayla interested in humanizing Aaron, for instance? And why does Thren not want to be the founding member of a dynasty rather than see his descendants end with Aaron?). But Dalglish makes up for these drawbacks by refusing to rescue intriguing characters in which he’s invested many pages when the plot calls for them to die, and by refusing to kill off those characters we’d like to see roasted over hot coals. The plotting is the strongest of Dalglish’s writing skills, and he remains true to it when the reader might wish to see things go differently.
A Dance of Cloaks is the first of the SHADOWDANCE series. The first three books and a related novella are currently available. Originally self-published, the books were picked up and reissued by Orbit after substantial editing. Two additional books in the series are scheduled to be published in 2014. I was sufficiently captivated by this book that I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to Aaron in the next book, A Dance of Blades. More than that, I’m interested in seeing what Dalglish does next.