The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms
In The Conclave of Shadow (2016), the second MR. MYSTIC / MISSY MASTERS novel by Alyc Helms, Missy, AKA “Mr. Mystic,” a shadow mage, has saved the spirit guardians of China at great cost to herself. Now back home in San Francisco, she makes a reluctant rapprochement with the corporate superhero group called Argent. Increasingly frequent earthquakes, a surprise encounter with the twin dragons Mei Shen and Mian Zi, a shadow attack at the Academy of Sciences, and the theft of super-secret technology soon put San Francisco, this dimension, and Missy herself at risk. To prevail, and hold back the forces of both the Shadow Realms and the Voidlands, Missy may have to reach out to people she does not want to trust. Along she way, she, and we, learn a bit more about Missy’s background.
In this jaunt, San Francisco is front-and-center, with a starring role given to one of its iconic and darkest landmarks, the island of Alcatraz. It’s almost a no-brainer that the self-styled leaders of the Shadow Realm, who, it seems, call themselves the Conclave, would choose a bloodstained historical prison as their shadow base. Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge there is an even more serious problem: the steady encroachment of the Voidlands, which we saw only briefly in the The Dragons of Heaven. Missy, in Mr. Mystic disguise, agrees to work with La Reina de Los Angeles, a superhero who’s an angel; Skyrocket, a cross between Captain America and The Rocketeer; a djinn who has been forced into service, and the djinn’s half-human sister. Things get even more elaborate when one of the China guardians, the celestial tiger, shows up intent on taking revenge on Missy. And there is a new player, my personal favorite of the new characters, the Lady of Shadows.
Because there is less set-up needed in The Conclave of Shadow, it is about seventy pages shorter than The Dragons of Heaven, and faster-paced, although there are times when the story drags as Missy sits in various meetings while the superheroes provide exposition. Once again, I am a little baffled by the inconsistency of Missy’s character. In this case, the woman who speaks several languages from several realms, and who pulled an obscure British folk-magic spell out of her ear in the first book apparently didn’t know that there are seven hills in Rome. And I’ve never really understood why any celestial dragon would need a human champion, a recurring theme in the series.
I’m also surprised that everyone, even the Lady of Shadows, is just fine with calling our realm “the real world.” Unlike me, they don’t put it in quotes. Despite the fact that we are introduced to at least three realms including the Realm of Shadow, nobody finds the egocentrism of us calling ours the “real” one the least bit objectionable.
The secondary characters, especially the new one, the Lady, distracted me from these problems, though. The Lady is very powerful, and I loved her magpie-like desire for shiny objects. When Missy first meets her, she pokes through the apartment, pocketing a flashlight, a photo of Missy as a little girl, a string of Christmas lights, and a headless mannequin in a wedding dress that Missy and her roommate Shimizu have created and named Estelle. “May I keep this?” she asks, after the fact. The Lady is big on collecting things, as we see later in the story. Her problem with the Conclave, (and the original Mr. Mystic) is that, as she says, “They took something from me.”
Secondary characters we already knew, like Shimizu, Missy’s Japanese-American physician roommate, Missy’s lawyer Jack, Johnny Cho, and Skyrocket continue to entertain, and they each play a real role in the action. I was disappointed in both Asha the djinn and her half-human sister Abby. Both women were introduced early in Book One and then disappeared. Now they are back. Both could use more development, but Asha was the biggest disappointment. She’s more of a plot device that a person and seems to be here primarily to tell us about yet another realm that is useful for the story. At one point, Asha quotes a snarky comment that Missy made, but I don’t remember Asha being in the room to hear the comment, and it isn’t a common one. That confused me.
The story is good and fast-paced, but what added to my enjoyment was the faithful realization of the setting. Helms captures the city of San Francisco, and also the pain-drenched but fascinating island of Alcatraz. A couple of Alcatraz legends play a part in the story, which fans of Alcatraz and Mythbusters will appreciate.
There’s no sophomore slump here. At the end of the book, Missy has more information about her own background and it only leads to more questions. She is still caught between the two feuding dragon brothers Lung Huang and Lung Di. In order to decide what her right action is, Missy needs to delve into the secrets of her own past, and as The Conclave of Shadow draws to a close, she is preparing to do just that.
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