Shadowfall is the start of yet another fantasy series and much of it will sound familiar to fans of the genre. There is a military order of skilled knights with a secret sect, a pantheon of gods, not one but two special swords (not to mention a special dagger), lots of folks with hidden origins, a small band fighting against overwhelming odds, and a quest to undertake to save the world.
Despite the oh-so-familiar trappings, however, and despite some flaws of execution, Clemens injects enough originality into the work that it transcends the cliches and becomes an engrossing read. Shadowfall is set in the Nine Lands, lands kept in peace by gods who “settled,” tying themselves to a particular area of land and allowing their “graces” (bodily fluids collected by human “Hands”— and yes, they collect all the fluids) to be used to alchemical effect. The first God to settle was Chrism, 4000 years ago. Now there are 100 settled gods and uncounted “rogue” gods who ply the hinterlands growing more mad.
The story starts off strong, with Tylar, a “fallen” and broken-bodied Shadownight, witness to the slaying of one of the 100 gods whose dying act is to heal him, fill him with a god’s Grace, and lay a guardian within him so he may quest for “Rivernscyr,” though he has no idea what that is. Arrested for being a godslayer, he must escape imprisonment and then pursuit to find his destiny, joined by Rogger — a mysterious thief, and Delia — one of the murdered god’s Hands. He soon picks up other allies, including a Shadowknight thought dead 300 years ago and perhaps a few gods, though their allegiance is unclear.
Meanwhile, two other stories unfold simultaneously. One involves Tylar’s ex-wife (she testified against him years ago in the trial that led to his being cast out of the order) and former compatriots back in the citadel of the Shadowknights. Their former leader has just died mysteriously, there are rumors of an evil sect within the order, and hints of growing danger to the world at large. Tylar’s ex Katherine and others try to get to the bottom of things as the citadel prepares a trap for Tylar, who is rumored to be heading back “home.”
The second story centers on a young girl named Dart, in training to perhaps be selected as a Hand. We meet her first as your typical orphan outcast among the richer girls — mocked, tormented, bullied. Her only friend is Pup, a fearsome creature invisible to all but her and who only manifests himself when bloodied and who comes to her fierce defense when she is threatened. Eventually Dart is chosen, along with her worst tormentor, as Hand to Chrism, the eldest god, and heads off to the god’s home. Rather than safety in the god’s bosom, however, Dart finds murder, suspicion, and betrayal, though she can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. Eventually, as one would expect, the three strands of story intertwine and all the major characters are brought together.
The plot is complex and interesting enough to hold one’s attention throughout and Clemens does a good job of using the shifting points of view from one storyline to another to increase suspense and tension. He also does a good job of withholding information so that one is never quite sure which side is good or bad or who is on which side until near the very end. Even then, when the villains have been revealed as villains, there are still some questions.
While some of the elements are utterly familiar, as mentioned there’s enough originality there (especially the parts with regard to the Gods and the bodily graces) so they don’t seem cookie-cutter. Dart is probably the strongest character despite her youth and her story tends to be the most compelling of the three due to her strength of characterization.
Tylar unfortunately is a bit weak of a character, seeming a bit undeveloped and passive through much of the story, though his characterization is much sharper and more vivid in the latter third or so. Other characters and elements also seem to lack some development, whether it be specific characters such as Rogger or the Raven Knight or whole pieces of background, such as the Shadowknight order or the use/manner of the Gods. And there is far too much exposition put into the mouths of characters, especially at the end where it reads almost like a history lecture. And unfortunately Clemens falls prey to the villain’s dreaded monologue — the far too tired method of having a villain explain everything just before he’s about to kill the hero (have these people never seen what happens to the villains that do this?)
The book comes to a resolution of battle but not of war and so offers the dual delight of a completed tale and suspense as to what happens next, as the war of Gods and Men (with factions from both on each side) is truly declared. Recommended with pleasure.
After the Sundering, gods fell to the barbaric world of man. Chaos and war reigned for centuries until the gods bonded themselves to the different lands. Then, with their powerful Graces, they bring the world back from the brink, and help mankind to build great cities. Now civilization spreads to all but the Hinterlands, where the crazed, rogue gods rule. But through the years a darkness starts to grow, stirring the winds of war. All-out conflict between the gods means a bloody anarchy for man that will be worse than ever before. All hope falls to the Shadowknights — the blessed, elite warriors of the world — but who can the Shadowknights save? They may have been infiltrated so deeply by the same evil that threatens all, that their very core may be rotted.
Seems like most epic fantasy these days is predictable, too whimsical, low on action and description, and/or magic is as commonplace as a cell-phone. In the few good fantasy epics that I’ve come across, the writer runs the story into the ground or they make you wait so long between books that your interest fades. Not so with Clemens. His writing moves quickly. The story and setting is unique, the characterization is superb, the action is two-fisted, and intrigue abounds. While most epics have the formula climatic battle at the end, Clemens sticks a major part or two right smack in the middle. You’ll find yourself surprised when you still have half the book left.
Be careful of which character you get attached to. They could get knocked-off so suddenly you’ll find yourself re-reading your last completed sentence just to be sure you got it right.
Also judging by Clemens’s other series, he seems to put them out regularly, so you won’t die of old-age waiting on the next book. I’ve already finished the next Godslayer Chronicles book, Hinterland, and I’m now hunting down The Banned and the Banished.
Give Shadowfall a go — you’ll probably find yourself hooked, too.