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martes, 1 de julio de 2014

The Shadow Master: review + a challenge

Fantasy is a first love you always come back to.

I love it when in a concise, but powerful way a character is brought to life even if it's going to be snuffed out too soon. That accomplishment is possible thanks to a well-applied context, some endearing personality thrown in the details, and emotional drama. The first chapter includes all that and opens the appetite for more.

Strange Chemistry/Angry Robot
Historical Fantasy
352 pages

In a land riven with plague, inside the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control: the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation.
And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack...Assassination; ancient, impossible machines; torture and infamy – just another typical day in paradise.

The writing style is vivid, strong, and also beautifully poetic when it has to be. Alas, the tale it tells is neither soft nor pretty. It's the harsh account of an even harsher time in the Walled City. A parallel Florence, in Italy, where magical science collides with ruthless families striving for power. The Medici and the Lorraine Houses strive to rise towers that show off their authority in the only city safe from the plague. Torture and violence run rampant in the streets when their rivalry breaks loose.

While cloak-and-dagger conspiracies take place from both sides, espionage and hatred war against each other. Galileo, Leonardo, Cosimo Medici are historical figures that take central stage in this adventurous, mortally dangerous tour-de-force that's filled with clever dialogue, dark emotions, secretive vendettas, and willful characters.

The young characters drive an important and magical part of the plot. Lorenzo, apprentice to Galileo, desires to rise above his station and prove his intellect. Lucia, raised under the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine, craves freedom from her tower and the ugly shadow of war. Together, they defy what's acceptable. Another very interesting and dashing figure is that of a deathseeker who is more than he seems. Actually, the whole array of characters is wildly colourful and engaging.

Fast-paced and rich in events, one scene after another brings new discoveries. It was very entertaining to know about the half-scientific, half-magical inventions of Leonardo, or the underground politics ruling everyone's acts. Despite the encroaching threat of the plague that surrounds the city in its vice-like grip, there is also a light tone sometimes that adds satirical fun to the reading.

One particular thing rattled me a bit. The characters' obsession with metaphors or their lack of talent for them is amusing and quirky, but it can also be a little nagging when they mistake a metaphor for a simile. Similar, but not the same.

Despite that, all protagonists are fleshed-out and we get to know their aspirations and fears, as those of the city itself. The novel reminded me of The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. It shares its mixture of Renaissance Italy, paranormal elements and a little bit of its darkness. I've enjoyed both very much.

In the last one hundred pages, it all comes together in the most exciting way: all the cunning characters, the mysterious science of the ancients, all the horrors that were brewing inside the city, and outside too, all the insanity and the Renaissance flair. 

I was filled with a sense of wonder. Such imagination from the author has been wonderful to read and enjoy. My only but which is not exactly small is that ending. It left me dumbfounded. Really! All seemed to grow and build up to an amazing end when suddenly I couldn't understand what had happened and why and what it meant. Then, the end. Umm, what? Yes, I see what the characters see but it's not rounded and clarified enough to give you that feeling of enlightenment, of awe at the realization of all the pieces fitting perfectly. Especially when you're not sure if there's a second book coming up to wrap it up.

Thank you so much, Craig, for coming to this reader's blog!

Q. Find two things that make your book unique
and stand out from the rest.
Well, a quick description of the book first.  The Shadow Master is a kick-arse tale of alternative history, love and conflict, madness and magic, with sword fights and mad clerics and assassins and bombs and magical shape-changers and dark catacombs and tall towers and an army of plague people – with everything except a car chase.  And through it all is this mysterious figure, the Shadow Master, who is manipulating everyone towards his own ends. The Shadow Master is quite unique as a character – in the action and manipulating the action and seeming to know what is going to happen, but not sharing it with the reader.
And the second thing - maybe the idea that you can change the whole world – and I mean CHANGE THE WHOLE WORLD with just a kiss.

Q. Confess one horrible thing about one of the characters
Lorenzo, the romantic lead male has herpes. No, not really. I couldn’t think of anything too horrible except that the baddies are all horribly bad and the goodies are mostly horribly good, but there are a few characters who you are never too sure whether they good or bad or a bit of both.
Not really horrible, but something interesting - many readers and critics have focused on the unrequited lovers as being based on Romeo and Juliet – but in fact I used a classical Italian book the Betrothed that is set in 1628 and tells of the plague years in Italy, and the politics and church of the time – and has two young lovers – Lorenzo and Lucia.

Q. The most striking thing you've uncovered while researching for this book
This was really funny, at least I thought so. I happened to be in Florence for a Science Communications conference two years ago (my day job), when the idea of the book started working its way into my head. I was actually walking around the Galileo Museum, and looking at all these devices and inventions – like the first telescopes and mechanical devices for measuring time – and the idea struck me – what if science was magic. What if when you looked through the telescope, for instance, it actually transported you across to what you were looking at? And what if, when you donned that flying harness that Leonado da Vinci designed, you actually morphed into a giant eagle?

So I’m then reading up on Galileo and how he was persecuted by the Church of the day and how to had compromise himself to survive. Well – there is a ‘relic’ of Galileo there at the museum. His skeletal mummified middle finger – and it’s standing upright in this glass jar – and it has been turned to face in the direction of the Duomo Cathedral in town. I think it was a very subtle way of letting Galileo have the last word, giving the finger to the church after death.

Q. The strangest idea you've put into the novel.
(*spoilers alert*) that the two central lovers are just play things of the Shadow Master and he has not just been controlling them the whole time, but actually placed them in the families they are in as young children, to be ready for the events in the book. And he has done it to them before and before and before.

Q. Choose the character that you most relate to and say why
That’s easy to answer but hard to talk about. The character is a mysterious assassin called the Nameless One, who we discover later (*spoilers alert*) is an aged Noble man whose wife has a rare disease that means she is losing her memory, and he gives her this one mechanical flower every day, and she says she will treasure it, and the next morning has no memory of it. And he keeps giving it to her in the hope that one day she will remember it. That’s based more than a little bit on my own family situation. My wife had a massive stroke a few years back and beside having limited movement on her left side, her brain acts a bit like a computer disc with some corrupted data on it – as at random times she has no memory at all of things that might have happened just the day before.

I tried to capture some of the feeling of that in the Nameless one and his wife.

(something that I deeply loved about the book, now I know why it felt so real)

Q. Finally, pinpoint what fantasy and historical readers will like about this novel.
That’s big question and I might defer to some of the reviews I’ve had from readers, who generally like the mix of action and romance. But you can never please everyone as one reviewer loved the way I’d found new expressions or metaphors for body parts during sex, but another questioned the need to make up new terms.
Now I just asked my wife if I should list some of them here, but she said I should write that people should check out the book to find them and make up their own minds.
But I think readers will like the way I’ve used real characters from history mixed in with fantasy and that fact that just when you think you know what’s going on, the ground changers under you. And of course the very satisfying knowledge that you really can change the world with just a kiss, just as many of us have always suspected!


I'm so happy to have read The Shadow Master, and that the author kindly agreed to be challenged. I really hope you give this book a chance as it won't disappoint your sense of adventure.

Have a great reading week, book buddies.

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