infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z
Scottish SF: a special featurefind out about Nova Scotia


by Michael Cobley

(Simon & Schuster, £10.99, 448 pages, trade paperback; published 6 June 2005.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

Shadowmasque by Michael CobleyWith 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 them.

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.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)