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Shadow: The Scavenger Trilogy, Book One
by KJ Parker
(Orbit, 6.99, 572 pages, paperback, published 30 May 2002; first published 2001.)

This story starts cover scanwith a man lying in mud and blood, half in and half out of a small river, surrounded by corpses and, thanks to a knock on the head, missing his memory. Acting on instinct, cautious to a fault, and with absolutely no sense of direction or intention, he makes his way as best he can into the brush. His prospects don't look good, and indeed, they aren't.

The protagonist lurches from one minor calamity to another, with a fair number of major calamities mixed in for seasoning. All he wants is peace, quiet, and some hint as to who he is. But almost every encounter ends (if it doesn't begin) with violence, and though he keeps blundering into people whose first response is "oh God, not you again!" they usually don't live long enough to tell him anything.

Scattered hints of his past emerge in the clear yet disconnected dreams that haunt him, and it takes time for the reader to appreciate that these dreams don't all originate from one person's experience, but from many. On one night he may glean a snippet from the wayward youth of Prince Tazencius, on another participate in General Cronan's victory over Allectus. There's a danger of confusion in this narrative method, but Parker holds it together well, stitching together a patchwork back-story that intrigues and puzzles in equal measure.

With few choices available, our memory-shy hero takes up with a travelling con-artist, Copis. Copis makes her living playing the part of Priestess to an obscure and mordant God, Poldarn, whose arrival presages the end of the world (or at least of the Empire within which the action is taking place). Poldarn is an undemanding role to play, and for want of other alternatives John Doe adopts his name, but here is where the real bite of the book lies.

Is Poldarn the amnesiac, actually Poldarn the God? The God who is, in fact, not only presaging, but actually causing the downfall of the Empire? There are certainly plenty of omens that suggest he is. Big, ugly, sinister omens, and no-one does Sinister as well as Parker does.

This is not a Horror story, but it's pretty damned horrible. The Empire is in a wretched state. The Northern territories are being savaged by mysterious, elusive yet deadly Raiders, while Imperial Generals and the treacherous quasi-independent House of Amathy manoeuvre for advantage on the sidelines.

The Imperial Throne itself is shaky, the centre of a web of intrigue and paranoia that sends assassin Sword-Monks and conspiratorial Imperial Chaplains scuttling hither and yon, playing fast and loose with truth, morality, and common sense, and ruthlessly chopping down anyone who looks like they might emerge as a contender for the crown.

The cities are plagued by stultifying Guild control, and nobody, with vanishingly few exceptions, gives a damn about anything but themselves.

Upon this dark and stormy sea, Poldarn is tossed capriciously about. Lethal Sword-Monks dog his tracks, Raiders and Generals and vagrant armies keep getting in his way. He may not be Poldarn the God, but there's more than enough evidence to suggest he's Poldarn the Extremely Evil Whom Everyone Wishes Were Dead, and that's not easy to deal with. This is a book alive with a dark intelligence and a sardonic, almost harsh wit. There's a dense yet meticulously logical plot around which the alarms and disasters swirl. Parker leads his characters steadily down a shadowy road towards oblivion. No-one wins cleanly, no-one comes out on top (there is, one suspects, no top to come out on). Everyone blunders at some point or another, everyone is a prey to lethal oversight, a touch of fatigue, or some other poor bastard's sheer damned stupidity...

One finds oneself looking forward to the next two books in the sequence with a certain horrified bated breath. Parker's previous trilogy, The Fencer, played similar dark games with clever, ruthless characters and remorseless, inexorable fate, but it started out on a lighter note than this one, and gave itself over, at times, to a sly, almost playful badinage. Shadow is starker work, enthralling, but disturbing, and I confidently predict it will not have a happy ending.

One from the Dark Side, certainly, but excellently written, and a wonderful tonic to much of the ersatz pap that clutters the genre.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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© Simeon Shoul 31 August 2002