The Pilgrims and Shadow: A solid opener followed by a more flat and meandering bridge book

23The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott science fiction book reviewsThe Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott

The Pilgrims and Shadow by Will Elliott are the first two books of the PENDULUM TRILOGY. I read The Pilgrims while on a long trip last year, and so never wrote up a review (camping and hiking not being conducive to such activity). Which means this dual review will focus heavily detail-wise on Shadow while making reference to the first book based on some fuzzy recollection, some quick skimming to refresh, and an old hand-scrawled note or two in the margin I may or may not have deciphered correctly.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Pilgrims introduces us to Eric Albright, and young and not-particularly-upcoming journalist, and Stuart Casey (“Case”), a homeless alcoholic, who in short order find their way via an odd red door into the world of Levaal, a sort of buffer world between our own and another on the far side of Levaal, on the other side of a great wall.

Levall is your typical portal world, home to magic and all sorts of strange creatures, including mages, winged females known as Invia, stone giants, demons, and dragons, though the latter are nearly all imprisoned high in the sky (as you might imagine, they’re none too happy about that and are scheming to find a way out, which mostly would not be very good for humans). Levaal is also home to Lord Vous — a crazed mage trying (and very close to succeeding) to become a god, with the assistance of his Archmage.

If the fantasy world is relatively typical, albeit inventive and as frequently original in its creation as it is in its familiarity, the two protagonists are anything but. “Pilgrims” are allegedly key players in this greater struggle taking place, although it’s not always clear exactly why or how. The two of them somewhat haphazardly pick up some allies, some enemies, and some who are first one and then the other.

The Pilgrims was a solid if uninspiring entry into the trilogy. I did enjoy many of the particular details of the world — the war mages, the idea of dragons being caged, “dark lord” being not just dark but really more than a little insane. But while I never really considered putting the book down, I can’t say it propelled me forward all that much either; I never felt fully engaged with the story or the characters. The former felt too meandering and random while the latter were a little too flat to make me really care about what happened to them.

As mentioned, these weren’t large enough of a problem to have me give up reading, and if I had to nail down a rating based on a fuzzy recollection, my guess is I would have given The Pilgrims a three. It kept me interested enough to finish and pick up its sequel, even if I did so without any great excitement. Unfortunately, Shadow is more of a step back than forwards, leaving me questioning whether I’ll continue on to the concluding novel.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn Shadow, well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what happens in Shadow. Characters wander around a bit, stay in one place a bit, join up, interact, split up, interact, wander some more, and that’s about it. Some of the encounters evoke more tension or interest than others, but I just never had any sense of a big picture or a larger narrative, or at least, not very often. It all felt a bit of a muddle, frustratingly so. I’d mention a few specific plot points, but really, they didn’t seem to really matter much in their specificity of action.

Characters remain mostly pretty flat and/or unexplored and also nearly wholly passive, with events happening to them rather than them initiating any sort of action themselves. In a character or two, that would be fine, and in a main character it might be subversive, but across the board, it lends an overall dullness to the plot. The many quick shifts amongst the characters (shifts not always handled smoothly) don’t help matters.

Elliott offers up a very interesting premise as well as an intriguing behind-the-scenes look (almost literally) of how magic works, but both are only slightly touched upon, with more detail — I assume — saved up for the third book, often a problem of second books in trilogies. The same problem occurs with character motivations; we’re never quite clear on why people are doing what they’re doing (or why they did what they’ve already done) and while it’s possible those motivations will be made clear in the next volume, it remains an issue in the book we’re actually reading.

I don’t think I’d call Shadow a bad book — it has some original creations of plot and character and a few effective scenes — but it is a befuddling book. Its many parts are not only not greater than its whole, but they don’t even really add up to a whole, leaving me just as at sea as its main character. As for a recommendation, I’d say hold off on the series for now; it’s possible Elliott will pull it off, but he’s got some work to do.

The Pendulum Trilogy. Eric Albright is a twenty-six-year-old journalist living in London. That is to say he would be a journalist if he got off his backside. But this luckless slacker isn’t all bad–he has a soft spot for his sometimes friend Stuart Casey, the homeless old drunk who mostly lives under the railway bridge near his flat. Eric is willing to let his life just drift by…until the day a small red door appears on the graffiti-covered wall of the bridge, and a gang of strange-looking people–Eric’s pretty sure one of them is a giant–dash out of the door and rob the nearby newsagent. From that day on Eric and Case haunt the arch, waiting for the door to reappear. When it does, both Eric and Case choose to go through…to the land of Levaal. A place where a mountain-sized dragon with the powers of a god lies sleeping beneath a great white castle. In the castle the sinister Lord Vous rules with an iron fist, and the Project, designed to effect his transformation into an immortal spirit, nears completion. But Vous’s growing madness is close to consuming him, together with his fear of an imaginary being named Shadow. And soon Eric may lend substance to that fear. An impossibly vast wall divides Levall, and no one has ever seen what lies beyond. Eric and Casey are called Pilgrims, and may have powers that no one in either world yet understands, and soon the wall may be broken. What will enter from the other side? Pilgrims is no ordinary alternate-world fantasy; with this first volume in The Pendulum Trilogy, Will Elliott’s brilliantly subversive imagination twists the conventions of the alternate-world fantasy genre, providing an unforgettable visionary experience.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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