(Earthlight, £10.99, 468 pages, trade paperback, published 3
February 2003. Pocket Books, £6.99, 470 pages, paperback, published
1 March 2004. Pocket Books, £6.99, 470 pages, mass market
paperback, this edition published 1 March 2004.)
Shadowkings will have been waiting
eagerly for this sequel. That volume ended on a cliffhanger, with the
armies of the five Shadowkings suffering a temporary setback in their
efforts to suppress the rebellious remnants of the Khatrimantine Empire.
Shadowgod picks up the story a few months later, after a period
in which both sides have been taking stock and building up their forces
in preparation for renewed conflict.
of Mike Cobley's first novel
For the rebels, those preparations are complicated by divisions within
their leadership. Cobley very effectively portrays the tensions between
the different factions. He also does a good job of conveying the doubts
and mixed motives of his major characters. Meanwhile the Shadowkings
are caught up in a struggle against the dark god who has inspired them
and now seeks to merge them into a single vessel for his own incarnation
-- a struggle that sets them at odds with their own most fanatical followers,
the Acolytes of the Lord of Twilight.
After the compulsory prologue, the novel bursts into action as Byrnak,
the leader of the Shadowkings, sets in motion his plan to neutralise
Ikarno Mazaret, the lynch-pin of the rebel leadership. And, once begun,
the action continues relentlessly through the entire 470 pages of the
novel. Brave men and women battle loathsome beasts and evil incarnate.
Characters with strange names are locked in an apocalyptic struggle
between good and evil. The pages of the novel resonate with dark magic
and violent deeds. In passing, it is worth noting that the dark magic
is part of a well thought out system, which includes some very nice
original touches. Besides the prologue, the book even offers a couple
of maps and some very effective brooding cover art in dark blues and
In other words, fans of high fantasy will feel very much at home here
... but not for long. Cobley sucks the unsuspecting reader into something
darker and more claustrophobic than anything created by the likes of
Eddings, Feist and Gemmell. Indeed the atmosphere he has created has
more in common with cyberpunk or the fantasy worlds of China Miéville
than traditional high fantasy. And, while the world he has created may
be less complex than, say, Feist's Riftworld, this is more than compensated
for by the byzantine complexity of the plot, particularly towards the
end of this second novel.
One of the main clichés of high fantasy is that, no matter how
beleaguered they may appear to be, the forces of light will triumph
in the end. Of course, the better fantasists make it clear that such
triumph is not without cost -- Frodo may save the Shire, but the price
is exile from Middle Earth. In Shadowgod the triumph of good
is a lot less clear cut, not least because the gods aligned with the
Khatrimantine rebels are not much better than their unmitigatedly evil
brother, the Lord of Twilight. The Earthmother proves herself to be
a vengeful bitch, and while the Fathertree may have lost much of his
power during the initial onslaught of the Lord of Twilight he still
demonstrates a disturbing tendency to manipulate people and events with
little regard for the life and well-being of his followers.
Cobley takes high fantasy to new places, some of which are uncomfortable
and may be uncongenial to the traditional reader of the sub-genre. Nevertheless,
he has done it and them a service by proving that it is capable of renewal.
This is not to say that the book is without weaknesses. There are times
when one suspects Cobley is not entirely in control of the complexity
he has created. For example, plot strands have a disconcerting habit
of disappearing for long periods only to reappear without warning much
later. However, for me, the main weakness of this book is that it is
very much the second half of the story begun in Shadowkings.
Anyone coming fresh to Cobley's work with this book is likely to be
completely lost within a chapter or two. Indeed, even if you have already
read Shadowkings, you may well need to refer back to it as you
begin this one.
Having said that, he does achieve a satisfying conclusion to the story
begun in Shadowkings. And this raises intriguing questions about
the third volume of the trilogy -- questions that Cobley himself answers
by describing the series as a two-book trilogy followed by a one-book
trilogy. If he can keep up what he has begun in these first two volumes,
the conclusion to the series, Shadowmasque, should be an extremely
Review by Lawrence Osborn.
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