Patricia Briggs’ novel Raven’s Shadow begins with a rescue and a romance. Tier, a Rederni ex-soldier, saves young Seraph, a Traveler girl, from murder at the hands of some ruffians in a tavern and a strange, dangerous man in the forest. Intrigued by this brave, foolhardy girl, Tier takes her home to his village to protect her from the forces that follow. Travelers are Briggs’ answer to Patrick Rothfuss’ Edema Ruh or Robert Jordan’s Tuatha’an… you know, your typical “gypsy” stereotype that seems to pop up in most high fantasy novels with lots of worldbuilding. In Raven’s Shadow, they are known for their innate uncanny abilities and are not welcome in Rederni society. To make her stay even barely palatable to his village, Tier is forced to marry Seraph, little knowing that doing so will open him and his family up to more danger than ever.
This short narrative comprises the first section of Raven’s Shadow and would almost work as a stand-alone short story. When the book picks back up, it’s over 20 years later. Seraph and Tier are settled, with a farm and a family: Jes, Lehr, and Rennie. Like their mother, each of these children displays qualities associated with a specific “order” of Traveler, which are each associated with a totem bird. Seraph is a Raven, a mage. Lehr is a Falcon, a hunter, and his sister Rennie is a Cormorant, a weather witch. Jes is an Eagle, a guardian and protector. Unlike the others, his power is almost like a different personality rather than a compartmentalized ability, and it overwhelms him at times. And finally, in what comes as a surprise to Seraph, who has never heard of an Ordered person who was not born Traveler, her husband Tier is an Owl, a bard.
These qualities have been hidden from the village and indeed from the children themselves for many years, but after Tier disappears on a hunting expedition, Seraph senses an approaching danger from the Shadow, a long-dormant evil that has perhaps begun to awake. She instructs her children in their different orders and prepare them for a journey across the country to save their father.
What follows in Raven’s Shadow is a cozy but fun fantasy adventure story, full of reasonably in-depth characterization and exciting action, set in a fleshed-out world that abounds with political intrigue, magic, and myth. Briggs does an especially good job of giving readers the backstory of the land, of magic, and of the Shadow, without overwhelming us with info-dumps. The fact that Tier is a bard who knows many songs and stories helps her accomplish this task. In one memorable scene, Tier is in the palace dungeons, telling the legend of the Shadow to an unseen listener. His bardic abilities make the story almost literally come to life for him and his listener; he finds himself weeping as he recounts the end, where Red Ernave, a legendary hero, finally defeats the Nameless King, the ancient ruler who allowed himself to become host to the Shadow.
I appreciated Seraph, too, who struggled to balance her different roles: a Traveler mage, a mother, a wife, a leader. Her fierce protection of her children and husband did not outweigh the obligation she had to her people, who were being hunted and killed by agents of the Shadow. Instead, she managed to be all things to all people, which might have seemed a bit Wonder Woman-ish if Briggs had not let us see many moments of Seraph’s interiority as she parsed out complex feelings about her various roles.
I listened to Raven’s Shadow on audiobook, narrated by Jennifer James Bradshaw. It was a great listen and Bradshaw made each character and moment come to life. I especially liked her sensitive reading of Seraph, whose ambivalence might be hard to convey. If I have one quibble with Bradshaw’s reading, it was her voice for one minor character, a forest spirit who appears in the guise of a horse. It’s hard for me to quote the exact line, given that I listened to an audiobook, but this character’s voice is specifically described as “deep” at least once, perhaps even “gravelly.” But the reading Bradshaw chose was somewhat high and nasal, as if it was a horse’s whinny, which seemed at odds with the textual description. Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to this.