WHEN DARKNESS FALLS OVER THE WORLD OF MEN
A truly exceptional dark fantasy that obliterates and breaks free of the shackles of its numerous tropes.
(Godslayer Chronicles, Book 1)
Genre: High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 480 Pages
Date: 5th May 2005
In a world where gods walk among men. Where magic wielding knights defend the established order. One man finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, to stand accused of an impossible crime. A fate that sets him on the path to personal redemption; becoming the nexus for a disparate group to be brought together to assist a young child fulfil a great destiny. You might well assume that you’ve read this all before, but you’d be wrong. You have never read a novel like Shadowfall.
It is the sign of a gifted writer when a trope heavy novel is elevated high above its trope laden plot. That Shadowfall is such an engrossing, hard to predict read, is a credit to author, James Clemens, marking him as just such a writer. This is a book that could, and perhaps should have been, all too predictable, not to mention a tedious chore to read. After all, it does use pretty much every fantasy trope you can think of: A young orphan with a great destiny? Check! A stoic hero with a tortured past? Check! A world imperilled by a looming dark threat? Check! A magical sword that can only be wielded by a chosen one? Check! Yet, in spite of these well worn tropes, Shadowfall, is simply unputdownable, to borrow the literary cliché.
Now you might ask; what is the secret of Clemens’ success? Well you can chalk it up to a number of things, all of which boil down to one reason; his attention to detail, in every facet of the book. Firstly, delving into the impressively comprehensive world building, it is very apparent all throughout the novel that Clemens spent a great deal of time constructing his fantasy setting in terms of its geography, history, mythology, theology, culture and technology. These aspects of the setting are ever present during the story, and Clemens provides detailed descriptions in his prose which gives a real sense of time and place, without ever being guilty of info-dumping.
It is always so much easier to immerse oneself into a story when the author succeeds in bringing to life, not only the people but the places contained within the narrative. The time Clemens spent on world building was time well spent, as he has created a truly memorable world that I would love to revisit in future publications.
The attention to detail is just as applicable to the characterisation as it is to the world building. Once again it seems very much as though Clemens devoted a considerable amount of time in developing his characters. This development isn’t restricted to just the main characters either, such as the story’s two principle protagonists: Tylar de Noche, the disgraced former Shadowknight; and Dart, the mysterious young orphan girl. There is also a wide array of supporting characters, some with relatively minor roles, and others with more substantial roles to play; all of whom are just as well rounded and developed. Getting to know the various characters was very easy as Clemens’ writing provides plenty of insight with his detailed descriptions of their back-stories, personalities, motivations and even physical traits.
I have to hand it to the author, he effortlessly succeeded in getting me to care about many of the characters. I was frequently in fear for the lives of certain characters I had developed a real attachment to. I don’t recall ever reading another book with quite so many unforgettable characters before. And while individually Shadowfall’s characters are top notch in their own right, it is the interactions between various characters that contributes most to making them that much more memorable. Clemens’ depictions of the different relationship dynamics throughout the story is consistently absorbing, and truly adds an extra layer of depth to the characters. Whether the nature of the interaction is amiable or adversarial, romantic or platonic, it all goes towards offering more insights into the characters.
Perhaps the best relationship, and certainly the most heart-warming, in the book is that between Dart and Laurelle, which is incredibly well written and developed. When Clemens first introduces, Dart, she is just one of several young children in residence at a school, training for the opportunity to become hand-servants to the gods. While the other pupils are from wealthy influential families, Dart, is very much an outsider; the poor, lowly orphan girl, alone and friendless save for her not-so-imaginary demonic friend, Pupp, whom only she can see.
Laurelle, on the other hand, is the darling of the school with numerous friends, and even more hangers-on. Initially it seemed as though the dynamic between the pair was fated to be antagonistic, as Dart is regularly the target of teasing and mild bullying that is frequently initiated by Laurelle; or at least done on her behalf. Clemens defies expectations in this regard because once Dart and Laurelle become two of the lucky few chosen to serve a god, they slowly but surely forge a close friendship. As the story progresses the pair become inseparable, and come to rely on each other greatly. The bond they build is so tight, in fact, that it often seemed inevitable they would become more than friends, despite their young age. There is a particularly funny passage in the book where Laurelle jokingly mentions that people may get the wrong idea about their friendship and start gossiping, on account of Dart’s reticence to sleep alone at night.
There are several other well written relationships throughout Shadowfall that I could also go into. For example, Tylar’s complicated interactions with his estranged Shadowknight wife, Kathryn ser Vail, whose damning testimony several years earlier had seen him banished from the Shadowknight Order, and condemned to life on a slave ship that left him a crippled and broken man. But it should suffice to say that the best way to discover all these relationships is to simply read the book yourself.
There isn’t an exact science to writing an “unputdownable” novel, but what helped make Shadowfall such a page turner is the author’s attention to detail in plot and storytelling. As mentioned right from the start, this is a novel that utilises many fantasy tropes. This can often be a negative by making books very predictable. But Clemens avoids this pitfall by using these tropes in original ways. And it’s this originality that keeps the predictability at bay. As for what keeps the pages turning, that would be the result of Clemens’ tight plotting. And the most notable thing about the plotting and the storytelling is the complete lack of redundancy present within them. Every plot element serves a purpose; nothing superfluous has been added for the sake padding out the story or boosting the page count. There are no obvious passages that could or should have been omitted from the text.
But it is, perhaps, the structure of the narrative, more than anything else, that will keep most readers turning the pages. The story is told principally from the point of view of the two protagonists, Tylar and Dart. And for most of the book the author dedicates each alternating chapter to following the progression of the two characters; first Tylar, and then Dart. Clemens’ uncanny ability to end each chapter on a mini cliffhanger should have been so much more infuriating than it proved to be. The prospect of having to read a whole new chapter of one character’s storyline, before finding out what happens next to the other character, is a frustrating proposition; in theory. Yet my consternation was always very short-lived, as each and every time, I was quickly drawn into the current chapter, giving little thought to how the events of the previous chapter would be resolved. At which point I would reach the end of the chapter, and my annoyance would briefly flare up again.
The only real blemish to an otherwise flawless story was the disturbing sexual assault that occurs very early on. I really could have lived without it, but it is ultimately a plot point which is integral to the story. Fortunately the perpetrator meets a very gruesome end during the act, which certainly helped to placate me.
I can’t really speak more highly of Shadowfall. It was a pleasant surprise to read such an exceptionally good novel. I am mystified as to why it doesn’t have a higher profile; and to think this book sat unread on my bookshelf for literally a decade before I finally deigned to give it a shot. I am now incredibly eager to read the rest of the Godslayer Chronicles, and must confess to being bitterly disappointed to discover that in the eleven years since the publication of Shadowfall, the author has only completed and published the second book of his proposed five book series. Clemens, if you are reading this: get a move on, you’re killing me!
In conclusion, I feel privileged to have read Shadowfall. And I am more than happy to declare it a must read title. So if you are a reader with an appreciation for an unrelenting fantasy tale of roguish heroes, magical knights, malevolent gods and benevolent gods, and dark conspiracies threatening a world with impending doom, this is a book not to be missed.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.