(Simon & Schuster, £10.99, 448 pages, trade paperback; published
6 June 2005.)
the publication of this volume we come to the end of Mike Cobley's unconventional
high fantasy trilogy. In the preceding volumes he has taken traditional
sword and sorcery to some new and perhaps uncomfortable places. And
the very structure of the trilogy is part of his exploration of new
directions in high fantasy. Most trilogies build up to a climax and
resolution towards the end of the third volume and readers can return
to the real world secure in the knowledge that yet again good has triumphed
definitively over evil. In this trilogy the victory of good over evil
took place at the end of Shadowgod, the second volume of the
trilogy -- though, to be honest, it was much less definitive than usual,
largely because the forces of good came across as not much better than
the forces of evil.
Mike himself has described the series as a two-book trilogy followed
by a one-book trilogy, suggesting that Shadowmasque is at least
semi-detached from the earlier books. That sense of semi-detachedness
is reinforced by the action being set three hundred years later than
its predecessors. Three centuries have passed and evil is seeping back
into the world of the Khatrimantine Empire. Acolytes of the Great Shadow
perform unspeakable rites in cellars and caverns. A new emperor sits
uneasily upon the throne, worried by rumours of rebellion and heresy.
The wielders of magic are divided, with an official order of mages firmly
part of the establishment and only a few renegades in a shadowy Order
of Watchers ready to stand against the supernatural threat confronting
A completely new caste of characters is faced with the challenge of
stopping this new threat in its tracks. Well, not completely
new -- but that only becomes apparent as the story unfolds. At least
two of the protagonists from the war against the Shadowkings have somehow
survived to play crucial roles in this belated final act. For it is,
after all, a final act and the Great Shadow is none other than what
the Shadowkings would have become if they had been victorious. Indeed,
in another reality they were victorious and the Great Shadow now seeks
to extend its hegemony over all realities. The triumph of good over
evil has perhaps been exaggerated.
Once again Mike has succeeded in producing an unusually dark and claustrophobic
piece of work, though it is a lot less bleak than its predecessors.
It is also a lot less convoluted with the battle lines more clearly
drawn (either that or I am beginning to get into the twisted mindset
that invented it).
And does good finally triumph over evil this time? The short answer
would be 'yes' -- the Great Shadow is cast into the void beneath the
void and the Watchers are able to begin the process of healing their
wounded world. But, in the process, Mike has once again subverted an
important element of the high fantasy tradition -- the purity of the
hero in contrast to the incorrigibility of the villain. Far from being
unsullied heroes, the men destined to be instrumental in the final downfall
of the Great Shadow -- Byrnak and Coireg Mazaret -- were unquestionably
on the side of evil in the earlier volumes. Furthermore this is a triumph
without the usual triumphalism. Instead the book ends with Calabos,
the leader of the Watchers, warning that 'Evil acts do not require the
hand of an evil god.'
There is one aspect of Shadowmasque that I found distracting
and, at times, irritating -- the dialogue. In places it struck me as
overblown and artificial to the point where I began to wonder whether
he was parodying some of the more notorious perpetrators of high fantasy
(David Eddings comes to mind -- perhaps rather unfairly because even
at its worst the dialogue of Shadowmasque never descends to the
cliché-ridden depths of that particular purveyor of purple prose).
I concluded my review of Shadowgod by saying that 'If he can
keep up what he has begun in these first two volumes, the conclusion
to the series should be an extremely good read!' In spite of my reservations
about the dialogue, Shadowmasque has largely lived up to my expectations.
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