PLOT SUMMARY: The crew of the vast, ancient ship Chathrand has reached the shores of the legendary southern empire of Bali Adro. Many have died in the crossing, and the alliance of rebels, led by the tarboy Pazel Pathkendle and the admiral’s daughter Thasha Isiq, has faced death, betrayal, and darkest magic. But nothing has prepared them for the radically altered face of humanity in the South.
They have little time to recover from the shock, however. For with landfall, the battle between the rebels and centuries-old sorcerer Arunis enters its final phase. At stake is control of the Nilstone, a cursed relic that promises unlimited power to whoever unlocks the secrets of its use — but death to those who fail. And no one is closer to mastering the Stone than Arunis.
Desperate to stop him, Pazel and Thasha must join forces with their enemies, including the depraved Captain Rose and the imperial assassin Sandor Ott. But when a suspicious young crewmember turns his attentions to Thasha, it is the young lovers themselves who are divided — most conveniently for Arunis. As the mage’s triumph draws near, the allies face a terrible choice: break their oaths and run for safety, or hunt the world’s most dangerous sorcerer through a strange and deadly land…
CLASSIFICATION: The Chathrand Voyage series is a mix of modern and classic PG-13 epic fantasy marketed for fans of George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Scott Lynch. The series has also drawn comparisons to C.S. Lewis and Charles Dickens. Personally, the series reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean if it was set in a fantasy world created by Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy large-scale, exciting and full of magic, intrigue and adventure…
FORMAT/INFO: The River of Shadows is 592 pages long divided over 32 titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person, mainly via the protagonists Pazel Pathkendle and Thasha Isiq. Minor viewpoints include Arunis, Neda Ygraël, Neeps, Felthrup, Thasa’s father Eberzam, Mr. Fiffengurt, Myett, Greysan Fulbreech, Ensyl, Counselor Vadu, Sander Ott, and Lord Taliktrum. The River of Shadows is the third volume in The Chathrand Voyage series after The Red Wolf Conspiracy and The Rats and the Ruling Sea. The series will be concluded in The Night of the Swarm. It’s highly recommended that readers finish the first two books before attempting The River of Shadows.
April 19, 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of The River of Shadows via Del Rey. The UK version (see below) will be published in both Hardcover and Trade Paperback via Gollancz on April 21, 2011. UK cover art is provided by Edward Miller.
ANALYSIS: In just a few years, Robert V.S. Redick has developed into one of the most exciting young voices in fantasy today. While The Red Wolf Conspiracy was a massively hyped debut that did not live up to expectations, the author showcased remarkable improvement in The Rats and the Ruling Sea — UK title — resulting in one of the best fantasy novels of 2009. Now in the third volume in The Chathrand Voyage, Robert V.S. Redick continues to make strides as a writer, while delivering another first-rate fantasy novel in The River of Shadows…
Originally planned as a trilogy, The Chathrand Voyage has evolved into a quartet with The River of Shadows the third volume in the series after The Red Wolf Conspiracy and The Rats and the Ruling Sea. A direct continuation from the end of The Rats and the Ruling Sea — MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!! — The River of Shadows starts off with the Chathrand and its crew safely across the Ruling Sea, but far from danger. Not only is the Great Ship facing food and water shortages, ixchel command, and possibly mutiny in a strange land ravaged by war and a plague that has turned all humans into tol-chenni — mindless creatures — but Arunis also remains on the prowl.
From here, exciting blockbuster action; sweeping adventure; intriguing subplots — dlömu/ixchel politics, Eberzam Isiq’s imprisonment, time-skips, the River of Shadows — unlikely alliances; and startling revelations involving Pazel’s mother and Thasa’s connection to Erithusmé take readers on a massively entertaining roller coaster ride that culminates with a final epic confrontation between Arunis and those sworn to the sorcerer’s opposition. Through all of this, Robert V.S. Redick’s engaging narrative is aided by frequent viewpoint shifts between characters major, minor, good and evil as well as informative/amusing footnotes and notes to the reader from the Editor, a journal entry from the quartermaster Mr. Fiffengurt, and one of Captain Rose’s letters, while the story’s undeniable charm and excitement factor is further enhanced by deft storytelling and witty prose:
My purpose here is simply a warning. If you are part of that infinitesimally small (and ever smaller) band of dissidents with the wealth, time and inclination to set your hands on the printed word, I suggest you consider the arguments against the current volume. To wit: the tale is morbid, the persons depicted are clumsy when they are not evil, the world is inconvenient to visit and quite changed from what is here described, the plot at this early juncture is already complex beyond all reason, the moral cannot be stated, and the editor is intrusive.
The one complaint I have with the story is that certain parts are easy to unravel or predict, like Greysan Fulbreech’s deception and the climactic battle with Arunis which involved the Nilstone and the Swarm of Night, but because The River of Shadows is so much fun to read and narrated in such entertaining fashion, it’s a minor issue.
Characterization is a somewhat bigger issue, and easily the novel’s weakest link. While Pazel, Thasa and the rest of their motley bunch — which includes heroes, villains, and those who fall somewhere in between — remain charming with interesting personalities and backgrounds, their sheer numbers have forced character development in The River of Shadows to a standstill. To make matters worse, the spotlight is far too small to properly accommodate everyone in the series. This is not so much a problem with Pazel and Thasa since they are prominently featured in The River of Shadows — as they should be — but some of the more intriguing characters introduced over the course of the series like Felthrup, Hercól Stanapeth, Neda Ygraël, Arunis, Thasa’s father Eberzam, Dr. Ignus Chadfallow, Sander Ott, Captain Rose and Lord Taliktrum only receive brief moments in the spotlight before disappearing back into the background, while new faces (Ibjen, Prince Olik, Counselor Vadu) struggle to make an impact. Honestly though, these issues with the characterization did little to dampen my enjoyment of the book. With such a huge cast of characters, one can only expect so much character development to begin with, while the brief moments I did get to spend with Hercól, Felthrup, Sander Ott, Captain Rose, etc., were time well spent.
World-building meanwhile, is less of a factor in The River of Shadows, especially compared to the first two books in the series, but what ideas Redick does introduce are once again creative and fascinating. Highlights include the immensely strange Infernal Forest; the city of Masalym with its unique docking system; Vasparhaven, a Spider Tellers temple; learning about the creation of The Merchant’s Polylex and Bali Adro’s Infinite Conquest; dlömic culture, superstitions and prejudice; the Orfuin Club; and the River of Shadows — “a tunnel between worlds, the channel cut by the wild pulse of life through a hostile universe, the thought that flees on waking, the pure stuff from which souls are distilled.”
CONCLUSION: Even with characterization flaws and issues with the story, The River of Shadows is another outstanding work of fantasy from Robert V.S. Redick, ranking right up there with The Rats and the Ruling Sea in terms of pure fun and entertainment the book brings to the table, while surpassing its predecessor because of improved writing and the rewarding answers provided. Not to mention setting the stage for what should be an explosive and much anticipated finale to The Chathrand Voyage saga in The Night of the Swarm…
I quite enjoyed Robert Redick’s first Chathrand Voyage novel — The Red Wolf Conspiracy — but was disappointed by the second, The Rats and the Ruling Sea, which felt less inventive and compelling (at least until the very end). The Ruling Sea took the focus off of several of my favorite characters and the plot seemed overly slow, meandering, and unfocused. So it was with some trepidation that I opened up book three, The River of Shadows. I’m glad to report it is a welcome return to the quality of book one, and maybe even exceeds it.
At the end of The Ruling Sea, the great ship Chathrand had reached the semi-mythical empire in the south, Bali Adro. Rather than a possible ally, however, it turns out Bali Adro has been corrupted by dark sorcery (with the help of Arunis and his fellow dark sorcerers, the Ravens). Even more shocking is their discovery of what has happened to seemingly all the humans in the South. As Arunis grows in power and comes ever closer to his goal of controlling the dread Nilstone, the group working against Arunis must team up with past enemies as well as find new allies in this strange and terrible empire, all while the core group threatens to fall apart thanks to internal issues.
One of the reasons this book struck me as more effective than the prior one is that the plot feels much more focused and streamlined. Whereas The Ruling Sea was more episodic in structure and seemed more haphazard, River of Shadows has a clean, clear narrative line that has a strong sense of urgency due to its narrow, almost single-minded focus. Before the general goal had been “stop Arunis,” the same as now, but it was a more abstract goal then as they were all locked into the same setting (on board the ship). It became a matter of layered scheme upon scheme and arcane, almost arbitrary reasons why certain moves couldn’t be made (why Arunis couldn’t simply kill everyone, for example). Now, though, they leave the ship behind and the narrative shifts to a chase sequence, stripping through all those layers of abstraction. And because Arunis is actually this time close to controlling the stone, there is a much stronger sense of felt urgency (rather than an urgency that is declared by a character or two). All of this ratchets up the tension and suspense nicely, although a minor blip is that the very end seems a bit anticlimactic.
The characters also pick up in interest for the most part. We see more of Felthrup, thankfully, one of my favorite characters. Chadfallow continues to be the kind of character that grows ever more interesting even as the reader is ever less sure about him in many ways. And we get some interesting revelations and shifts among some of the other characters, such as Rose and Neeps, though with such a large and growing cast of characters some are given short shrift. How one responds to that will depend on their feelings about particular characters. I would have liked more with Neda, for instance, but some of the other characters I’m quite happy not being given lots of page time. Several new characters — a prince of Bali Adro, a commander wielding a powerful and sinister weapon, and a head of a monkish order — add new blood and bits of complexity and humor and wisdom to the story. Each is a welcome addition. One blemish in both the character and plot is a storyline involving Thasha and Fullbreech, one which continues the unfortunate soap opera kind of plot that so annoyed me in book two and which also is predicated on characters being a bit implausibly dimwitted. One other plot point is even worse in the “did they really not see that” way, but as things would have gone as they did anyway, one can set that aside a bit more easily.
Besides the sharper, more suspenseful plot and more interesting characterization, one of the true pleasures of The River of Shadows is its inventiveness. The South is a wholly new geographic region, and because it is connected in some way to the titular River of Shadows — a place of magic and dreams and thought where worlds commingle and from whence come all sorts of strange creatures (for good and bad) — Redick has lots of opportunity to show us new creatures, peoples, and cultures, such as fire trolls, glass spiders, hospitality rules, the Infernal Forest (shades of The Princess Bride), and even a ritual which involves Captain Rose having to bow to a kind of goat (you can imagine how well he takes that). All of these details, some of which play important roles in the plot and others of which simply flesh out Redick’s world, create a wonderful impression of newness and creativity. I think this is the reason I consider The River of Shadows the best of the series so far.
“So far,” that is, because the end resolves some questions but opens up other, perhaps more dire ones. After The Ruling Sea, I was hesitant to follow Redick to the end of the tale, but now, having had the series redeemed by The River of Shadows, I’m eagerly waiting to clamber back aboard the great ship to see what happens in sequel: The Night of the Swarm. Highly recommended.
The Chathrand Voyage — (2008-2013) Publisher: The Chathrand — The Great Ship, The Wind-Palace, His Supremacy’s First Fancy — is the last of her kind — built 600 years ago she dwarves all the ships around her. The secrets of her construction are long lost. She was the pride of the Empire. The natural choice for the great diplomatic voyage to seal the peace with the last of the Emperor’s last enemies. 700 souls boarded her. Her sadistic Captain Nilus Rose, the Emperor’s Ambassador and Thasha, the daughter he plans to marry off to seal the treaty, a spy master and six assassins, one hunderd imperial marines, Pazel the tarboy gifted and cursed by his mother’s spell and a small band of Ixchel. The Ixchel sneaked aboard and now hide below decks amongst the rats. Intent on their own mission. But there is treachery afoot. Behind the plans for peace lies the shadow of war and the fear that a dead king might live again. And now the Chathrand, having survived countless battles and centuries of typhoons has gone missing. This is her story.