Archive for April 12th, 2012

Jon Sprunk’s “Shadow’s Master:” Intelligent, Violent Dark Fantasy

Jon Sprunk’s SHADOW’S MASTER is the third and final installment of Sprunk’s “Shadow Saga,” the previous two books being SHADOW’S SON and SHADOW’S LURE.  It isn’t necessary to read the previous books in order to understand SHADOW’S MASTER (good thing, too, as I haven’t).

This third installment in the “Shadow Saga” features Caim Du’Vartha, a fearsome fighter of renown, who must go North in order to find his mother’s family.  Caim has abilities, you see, which he doesn’t understand but somehow has full use of, including the ability to teleport by the use of “shadows” (thus the name for the trilogy) and the ability to move much faster than most humans, which obviously improves his fighting and is the main reason for his reputation.  But this, alone, wouldn’t be enough to motivate him; the real reason he’s going North (a place of fearsome, dark beauty where the sun never shines and the constellations are all wrong) is because Caim wants, once and for all, to know why his mother simply disappeared one day, never to return, despite her love for him and his (fully human) father.

Note that despite Caim’s fearsome abilities, he hasn’t been stupid enough to go North alone; instead, he’s taken three very good fighters along with him, these being Malig, Aemon, and Dray.  These three often serve to relieve tension, and all serve a unique purpose: Malig is a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type, Dray is moody, and Dray’s brother Aemon seems like he’d rather have retired than gone on this quest, except Dray wouldn’t let him.  These three men help to keep Caim from becoming too introverted or angry.

Here’s the one piece of information Caim really doesn’t know, but should’ve figured out before he started this quest (which is why it’s not a spoiler): Caim is not fully human, as these shadows he uses are a biological ability he was born with due to his mother’s genetic heritage.  But Caim doesn’t think of himself as a half-breed, though others do; these others, centered in a stronghold called Erebus, call Cain the “Scion” and wonder if he’s really as capable as he seems.  This is why they resolve to test him; a noble fighter named Balaam, one of the Talons who guard “the Master” (equivalent to an Emperor) and can use the shadows as easily as Caim can, is dispatched to test Cain’s mettle.  Balaam must determine whether or not Caim truly should be named the Master’s heir – or if Caim should be eliminated out of hand.

Meanwhile, there are two others who actively factor into the plot; the first is Empress Josephine (called “Josey”) of Nimea, who is carrying Caim’s child, though Caim doesn’t know it.  (This apparently is because Josey didn’t know she was pregnant before Caim went North.)  The second is a woman of mist (a “guardian spirit”) named Kit, who can’t fully incorporate into the physical world, yet is deeply in love with Caim anyway.  This love triangle adds depth to Caim’s character, which otherwise would’ve been one of extreme violence and not much else.

Mind you, these two women are also very important to the plot.  Josey is on a “royal progress” in order to unite Nimea, and has many adventures of her own, while Kit must figure out whether or not she loves Caim enough to leave her current mode of life.  You can see why this is a most interesting love triangle: Josey’s pregnant and knows it’s Caim’s child, but has no idea where he is.  This means she has to get on with her job of ruling Nimea, and part of that job means she must entertain the possibility of other alliances.  And Kit’s entire mode of living could change if she stays with Caim; she would not only have to become mortal (difficult enough), but also give up all of her extra abilities despite the fact that Caim may need them in order to survive.  These extra layers of complexity help to humanize Caim’s situation, especially since in both cases, Caim has no idea what these women might be willing to give up in order to be with him (because neither woman is willing to tell him).

Who will Caim choose (or who will choose Caim, take your pick)?  Will Caim find his mother in Erebus, or will Balaam succeed in keeping Caim out?  And what, pray tell, will Josey do regarding her rule and her increasingly obvious pregnancy?  All of these questions will be answered by the end of SHADOW’S MASTER.

The pluses of SHADOW’S MASTER are these: the characterization is spot-on.  The fighting sequences, violent as they are, work well.  The action-adventure works.  The plot is well-constructed.  And I liked the fact that “Caim” is a very close name to “Caine,” the hero played by David Carradine on the old “Kung Fu” television series.

The minuses, though, are a bit harder to understand. 

First, why is it that both Kit and Josey don’t tell Caim anything?  One of them — Josey – has every reason in the world not to tell Caim what’s going on as he’s gone.  But there’s no excuse for Kit not to say anything, as she’s with Caim every day due to her own magical abilities.  This was something that just made me scratch my head, as it could’ve easily been fixed.

Second, the court at Erebus wasn’t as well-sketched as I would’ve liked.  Most of those people were complete ciphers, and while that makes sense from Caim’s perspective, it makes zero sense from Balaam’s.  As we see much from Balaam’s viewpoint, this also could’ve easily been remedied.

Third, Caim’s essential nature bothered me.  He’s so dark and brooding that I truly didn’t understand how it was that not one, but two good women would be willing to give up so much for him. 

I understand why Caim is upset throughout most of this book, mind you; that’s not the what bugs me.  What does is that Caim doesn’t seem to grow in this particular book.

I’ve read comments elsewhere to the point that Caim has grown a great deal throughout the trilogy, and this may well be true.  However, just because his good qualities may have been more strongly enumerated in the previous books of the trilogy, they still need to be sketched out here — and they weren’t. 

All that said, this is a strong sword and sorcery effort that lovers of dark fantasy — especially men, the younger the better – will enjoy quite a bit.  And that’s not chopped liver.

Grade: B

–reviewed by Barb

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