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Shadowkings by Michael Cobley
(Earthlight, £10, 372 pages, trade paperback; published 26 July 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 436 pages; published July 2002.)

Magic is one of the more obvious required features of Big Fantasy novels. It's cover scangenerally what makes them fantasy, instead of merely historical adventures. Such tomes are populated with mages and wizards, hurling spells and enchantments left, right and centre. Often the study of the magic crafts is practised only by a certain breed of aloof ascetic; equally often, magic is just there to make the finale go with a bang. Good fantasy novels don't just use magic to create an interesting character trait, or great sfx, they reveal it as the warp and the weft of the world. Michael Cobley's magic impressed me for just this reason. In Shadowkings, magic is not only as fundamental an element in the universe as nature and weather, it is at the crux of the plot as well. By working diligently on this aspect of the book, Cobley builds a living world, fires the plot, and manages to produce some very vivid set pieces into the bargain.

The story begins some years after the destruction of the Khatrimantine Empire by invading barbarian hordes under the leadership of an evil god, the Lord of Twilight. In that obliterating defeat, along with the Emperor himself, his entire familial line and the majority of their militia, the Khatrimantine people lost the Fathertree - the magical source tapped by their defending mages. This loss leaves the few disenfranchised survivors with only a weak Lesser Power to aid them in a desperate struggle for survival. After sixteen years of occupation, the kingdoms of the empire are a bleak place to live, and the memories of the peaceful days before the invasion are still fresh. The odds are heavily stacked against the rebels, and they are just about to get a lot worse. We are introduced to Byrnak, a barbarian chief with an unpleasantly inventive imagination, and when he discovers that he is host to one fifth of the spirit of the Lord of Twilight, his disposition takes a further turn for the worse. The rebels now not only have the barbarians to fight - all will be lost if the five Shadowkings congregate and bring the dark god back.

Of course it's not as simple as that. Some of the various Shadowking hosts are reluctant to give up their lives for the greater evil, and not all of the barbarian tribes are happy about their part in the plan either. Further, as the rebels set out to reclaim their land, a previously unknown imperial heir comes to light.

What follows is a pacey action and adventure story, packed with battles, rescues and political double-dealing. Not only that, Cobley also finds space to riff on the book's themes of possession and subjugation, to which end his characters variously find themselves disempowered by force, by destiny, by magical ability and its lack, and by personal responsibility.

Shadowkings has a lot to recommend it, but it also suffers a little from its ambition to stand apart from its shelf-mates. In creating a world where life is so unremittingly grim, its characters are seen mostly to react to the stresses of their situations; that is, while there are lulls in which the characters find the time to be introspective, there is little scope for levity or love. Everything is shadowed by the overall darkness. Also, this being a Big Fantasy novel, it is to be expected that few of the plotlines begun here will be resolved by the end of the book, and indeed that is the case, but that's a criticism of the form rather than this book on its own.

However, these are quibbles. Shadowkings, was for me (a now very occasional visitor to the Big Fantasy shelves) a refreshing and believable take on the Fight Against Insurmountable Evil Foes sub-genre, without dispensing with any of the familiar staples that make the genre what it is.

Hell, and the sfx are great too.

Review by Neil Williamson.

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© Neil Williamson 17 November 2001