Lord of Snow and Shadows starts as Gavril, a young relatively carefree painter, learns that he has just inherited rule of the northern kingdom of Azhkendir after his father (whom Gavril never knew) was murdered. The inheritance has a darker side, however, as his father’s line also passes from son to son the Drakhaoul, a creature which lives in their blood and mind and gives them great power at great cost — the eventual transformation of their body and soul. Kidnapped by his father’s personal guard and brought back to Azhkendir both to rule and to avenge his father, Gavril must struggle against the creature inside of him, a warring prince of another country, another claimant to the throne, his father’s demanding ghost, his own distaste for vengeance, and a host of people who wish to manipulate him for their own personal and political purposes. And oh yeah, there’s the girl he loves. Or is that girls? The book is a stand-alone in that it wraps up an entire storyline, but clearly is leading to several sequels.
Ash offers up some pleasant changes of pace from the run-of-the-mill fantasy. Its major setting, Azhkendir, is a mostly icebound northern country and thus not your usual temperate setting where characters can meander around and camp for days on end with weather or geography being of no concern. The time setting is also different, offering a more advanced culture than usual, where gunpowder, magic, science, and alchemy exist side-by-side. The background is more Eastern than Western European, another nice change.
The objectives are more narrow and more personal than most of the epic “save the world” fantasy out there which is actually an improvement I think. And the hero’s reluctance comes not from having lived in the typical little valley sheltered from the storm of the outside but from a philosophical repugnance against an eye for an eye as well as the more tangible fact that the more he uses his powers the more monstrous he becomes.
Setting, tone, premise, and general plot are all strengths. Characterization varies widely. Gavril is a bit too much of an unknown quantity when the action begins and many of his actions in the first third seem to come out of nowhere. Why does he feel motivated to protect a people he never knew? Where does he learn to become a leader of men and a plotter of intrigue? Once these abrupt shifts are done and he settles into a stable, recognizable character, things improve, though he never really reaches a fully three-dimensional characterization. The main female character, Kiukiu, a young servant he befriends, is somewhat better drawn, but like Gavril, moves far too quickly and abruptly from immature and somewhat ignorant to a more self-assured master of her own magical gift. More minor characters, Gavril’s first love interest, Gavril’s mother, Kiukiu’s grandmother, a villainous sorcerer, are solid if a bit shallow. Prince Eugene, who attempts to reassemble a long-lost empire by attacking both of Gavril’s homelands (where he lived when he was kidnapped and his newly inherited one), gets a lot of space but never really comes alive as a character, though he has moments of complexity which you wish were further explored.
That is probably my biggest complaint. Snow and Shadows has so many strong opportunities for good writing/storytelling but it often seems to fall a bit flat. Characters change too easily or too quickly, dramatic moments are glossed over, internal conflicts too easily resolved. And the ending itself is a bit anti-climatic.
It’s a good but flawed beginning and one hopes for some improvement in the next book — deeper characterization, further exploration of motivation and internal conflict, a plot which slows down and develops rather than hops forward quickly and a little awkwardly. Snow and Shadows is a decent appetizer, but one hopes the food following tastes better. A solid recommendation with hopes, and expectations, for improvement.