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by Michael Cobley

(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.)

cover scanReaders of Mike Cobley's first novel 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.

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 venomous greens.

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 good read!

Review by Lawrence Osborn.

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