fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Shadow Master by Craig Cormick fantasy book reviewsThe Shadow Master by Craig Cormick

My low rating of this book reflects my disappointment in the gap between this concept and the execution, especially in the world-building. I also must say that many people on Goodreads loved The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick. Perhaps I’m just not the right reader for this book.

At first glance the book appears to be set in an alternate 15th century Italy with two warring families. There are the star-crossed lovers, Lucia and Lorenzo; each one an orphan, each one taken in by one of the feuding families … and deeply in love. There’s the Shadow Master leaping around, sword fighting, smiling a mocking smile from behind his mask. The name of the city is the Walled City.

The story of The Shadow Master involves a plague that kills everyone except the people inside the Walled City, who can slow the effects of the plague with a spice that they import from the east on sailing ships. Thank goodness no one in the east has the plague! The two political families have rival fleets and win and lose territory within the city depending on who brings back the next shipment of the spice. The magico-mechanical devices each family uses are derived from the very powerful machines of the Ancients (and their magic).

The Shadow Master seems to be helping Lucia and Lorenzo meet in secret. He gives Lorenzo clues about the mysterious third party who is pushing the two great houses to war, and also side-murmurs a lot of annoying hints about how Lorenzo the orphan has known him from before. Lorenzo, of course, has no memory of it.

This is where things start to break down. The two families are named Medici and Lorraine. The head of the Medici family is Cosimo, and he counts on his master alchemist Galileo to provide him with magical weapons based on the materials of the Ancients. Yes, that Galileo. The Duke of Lorraine uses his brilliant inventor Leonardo — yes, that Leonardo — to build war machines based on the work of the Ancients. And in the catacombs, a charismatic monk named Savonarola is stirring things up.

This was a bad idea. There is no way this story is set in renaissance Florence (or Venice, or Genoa). Historical heavy-hitters like the Medici family, Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci do not help the story, they dent it. Almost-Florence didn’t help. Probably the worst choice was using the storyline of the ambush of Cosimo and Guiliano de Medici, in a city that has a cathedral but is neither Catholic nor Christian, apparently, on some generic “holy day” that is never explained. Cormick needs the ambush to drive Cosimo into a full-on war, but he would have done better to set up an original scenario, rather than push a copy of the real-world Easter Sunday ambush into his fantasy world.

Finally, with the help of the Shadow Master, Lorenzo and Lucia use the Ancient magic and machines to try to save the city. Comments exchanged among the three of them at the end of The Shadow Master indicate that their connections go back longer than this one lifetime. And There’s More Going On Here Than We Know…

Although the two-to-three-page chapters and changing point of view made the rhythm of the book jarring, Cormick can tell a story. He writes good descriptions and good action sequences. This is not alternate-history; too much is wrong from any starting point in our timeline. It isn’t Romeo and Juliet. In terms of story, it has more in common with the movie The Matrix, or another virtual reality movie called The 13th Floor. The inconsistencies do give it that feel, though. Shadow Master, Lucia and Lorenzo feel like Matrix-type Agents, injected into a machine-reality in order to tinker with coding and get it back on track. I’m not offering this as a spoiler; I’m saying it’s the only way I can make sense of this story.

This book is much closer in style to Jay Posey’s Three and Morningside Fall, and if Angry Robot had marketed it that way I might not be quite so disappointed. There is a glaring error in the cover copy, which just compounded my confusion (this was not an ARC) and Angry Robot’s attempt to market this as a “secret history” is simply not convincing.

Although the cover didn’t mention a series, The Shadow Master is clearly Book One, and in fact, The Floating City (which will be Almost-Venice, I’m sure) is due out June 2, 2015. I felt cheated by The Shadow Master. This book short-changed me. Still, is has good action sequences and descriptions. If you don’t care about the fabric of reality you might like it.

Shadow Master — (2014-2015) In a land riven with plague, inside the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control: the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation. And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack… Assassination; ancient, impossible machines; torture and infamy – just another typical day in paradise.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.