Slaves of the Shinar by Justin Allen
This is the debut novel for Justin Allen, and its whole title is Slaves of the Shinar: An Epic Fantasy of the Ancient World. The title is misleading, because I am of the solid opinion that this book is not fantasy, but is rather historical fiction, and pretty good historical fiction at that. Perhaps it is classed as fantasy by the publisher because of the creative manner in which Allen sets his story in very early (I assume pre-Hammurabi) Mesopotamia, at the pre-dawn of civilization.
It is an interesting story of people uniting against a common foe, but by being set in an ancient, bronze age (probably copper age, actually) era, it is very different from what most fantasy fare offers.
I usually read the typical medieval fantasy, and this was a really nice change. However, I believe it should be marketed as an historical novel, not a fantasy. The only fantastic element was the after-death experience of a character who died, and that sort of scene has been used in all kinds of fiction. The death scene (which I loved) wasn’t enough for me to have this book placed in the fantasy genre, but I don’t really care about genre anyway. I just like good books, and I love historical fiction.
This is a solid debut, and I almost gave it a solid four stars. However, I was not able to do so. Maybe the timing for my read was wrong, but the book did not grab me until I was about half way through it, perhaps for a couple of the problems I note below, and perhaps because of where I was. I can’t quite put my finger on it, truthfully.
Allen is good with his characters. Whether they are the main characters Uruk or Ander, or the supporting characters that move the story so well, they are balanced, interesting, and full of flaws and contradictions that make them real and human. I really liked this aspect of Allen’s writing, and it is a strength that I hope he builds on in the future. The main characters develop beautifully, and Allen is not afraid to avoid the pitfall of a Hollywood ending that destroys so many books. People the reader likes get hurt and die, and as a result, the book is made stronger. The plot is clear and identifiable, and is a classic without being clichéd. The ending was excellent, and I loved how Allen put it together.
Allen’s prose is free and easy, and comprehension is not difficult, so just about anyone could read this book. It is not a child’s story though, and it is replete with violence, and very direct references to sexual activity, though no actual sex scenes, so this book should not be read by anyone too young. However, the prose could use a little work, and the closer attention of the editor and the copy editor. For example, the former should have picked up on the use of the word “millenniums,” when the plural is “millennia,” and a few other grammatical slips that were not typos. The copy editor, or type setter (or whatever is used in this day and age) should have picked up on the worst typo that I have ever seen in a book, namely “spider00000000000000000000web”. That is just sloppy production, and that must be laid at the feet of the publisher.
There were some errors of the anachronistic kind which bothered me, and perhaps this was the fantasy part that the publisher was trying to pursue, but the use of iron swords and even bronze in what was clearly the early copper age was troubling for me. My unbelievable bell went off, as bronze came much later, and iron… well that came more than 3000 years after, so I was a little irked by this, particularly as he wrote battle scenes so well. This indicated to me a need for stronger research behind a book that is clearly set in our own world. It was this aspect of the book that lowered it for me from 4 stars to 3.5, particularly since there were Biblical and other references (which were a nice touch) that helped me place the setting of the story so definitively.
I liked Slaves of the Shinar, and I look forward to more Justin Allen books in the future. It is a strong debut, and I look forward to Allen’s development as a writer. If you are at all interested in the ancient world, or ancient world fantasy, this book is a good read. And one final point: Justin Allen’s dedication is about one of the classiest I have ever read anywhere.
ANGUS BICKERTON practises law in a small town in Eastern Ontario. He lives with his wife, their two youngest children, and their black lab in a 160 year-old stone home, which also holds his law office. He has become, through inadvertence bordering on negligence, an expert in money-pit properties, and in do-it-yourself repair and construction. He has always dreamed of writing novels, but so far he has only self-published a play about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ entitled The Gate.
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