A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell
A Shadow All of Light (2016) is a collection of linked, chronological stories by Fred Chappell that add up to a full-length narrative if not a seamless novel. Some individual stories are stronger than others, and I would have liked more of a full sense of place, character, and culture, but I enjoyed the underlying magic system, the main character, and how the structure built up over time to a decent climax.
Our narrator is Falco, a country boy from an area of “small, muddy farms” who has run away to the big city (the port of Tardocco) and seeks to apprentice himself to the legendary shadow thief Maestro Astolfo. When they first meet, Astolfo calls Falco a “bumpkin,” a “sneak,” a “hot-blood lazybones,” a “rustic Lumpfart,” an “imbecile,” and a “lunatic.” And of course he takes him on as his apprentice, to be trained by himself and his large, silent assistant (or as Gene Hackman might say, “an incredibly large mute”), Mutano.
As one would expect from a series of linked stories, the narrative is episodic in nature, with each story mostly detailing one adventure involving the Maestro being hired to do something involving shadows. In one he’s called in to appraise a mysterious (and potentially dangerous) shadow that a collector has bought. In another, a Lady’s huge jewel, and her own mental capabilities, seem have been negatively affected by a shadow. As the stories progress, time moves forward sometimes in brief spurts and sometimes in several-year spans. Falco becomes more polished, more learned in Shadow lore, and more self-confident. He takes on more and more work and even at times is assigned a task on his own, such as when he must solve the mystery of a pair of twins with only one shadow between them.
Despite the picaresque structure, the story does have arcs that run throughout A Shadow All of Light, all while it builds as noted toward a set climax. Falco, as I’ve already mentioned, grows in social and professional skills. Events in one story influence events in later story, and characters appear and reappear. And Mutano has his own quite specific thread involving the magical theft of his voice from years ago and his attempt to gain it back. And cats are important. And pirates (well, one at least).
While I wanted to feel more fully steeped in the city — its culture, its sights, sounds, and scents, and the overall world, Chappell does proffer up some vivid details at time, such as a big jester festival, strange plants that feed on shadows, some trades/merchants, and the like.
The most detailed, most poetic, and most original language revolves around the premise of the shadows that lie at the core of the story. Chappell has a poet’s nuanced touch in describing their various colors and shades: “A dark grey shading to mauve,” “a dusty yellow,” “a parti-colored shade … liked the shades in a rainbow where a waterfall pours into the pond of a forest stream” — almost like a connoisseur listing the various aspects of a fine wine. Even the shading of a bruise is given a lyrical simile: “black as onyx and purple as sunset.”
The shadows’ usages are just as fascinating, as when the “doomful poet Egardo has been using minute parts” of a murderer’s shadow, stolen “as he stood upon the gallows.” The poet’s work, Astolfo notes, has “grown ever more ominous and sardonic.” An observation he makes to an artist who has come to seek some of that same shadow for a mural that “is to be dark, gloomy dark, in its center.” Those well versed in shadows an also tell a great deal about the person who once wore a particular one, and some wear various shadows the way we change clothes on a daily basis. All of this, including the various ways one can steal a shadow, are slowly revealed over the course of the stories, one little delectable tidbit at a time.
A Shadow All of Light is not a fast-paced, rollicking book. Swordplay rears its head now and then, there’s a cat fight (literally, not one between two women), a horseback quest outside the city that entails contact with some bandits, and a “naval encounter” of sorts. But it’s all done pretty quietly and softly. This is more of a cerebral, atmospheric, slightly wry and quietly sideways kind of book. Think a kind of Jack Vance/Fritz Leiber/Clark Ashton Smith kind of book, but toned down a bit and lacking some of their verve and humor (though not entirely lacking in humor). I can see a lot of people finding it slow, complaining that nothing much happens. And that’s true to an extent. I even had a little of that feel myself early on. But Chappell’s language and style grew on me, as did the layered in details of the shadow work, and I was quite enjoying myself not too far in. Actually, if anything, the “big climax” at the end may have been my least favorite part. Not that it was bad; I just preferred the smaller, quieter bits. I’d be happy to read a few more Falco stories to see how he’s getting along.
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