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Of Darkness and Dawn (The Elder Empire: Shadow Book 2)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Of Darkness and Dawn is the second round of Will Wight’s experimental bifurcated story telling in the elder empire series.  This is Book Two of Shadow side where we continue to follow the mean underbelly of the impressive world that Wight has built.  The author reintroduces us to Shera, Lucan and Meia along with the rest of the Consultant guild.

I mentioned in my review of the initial round of books that I appreciated the experiment of telling the same story from two different viewpoints.  As the story goes on, I find myself liking the approach less and less.  In the first installment I read both books back to back over the course of several days.  While reading the first book it felt like I was always missing a piece of the story which the second book nicely wrapped up in a satisfying whole.

Now a year has passed.  In that time, I have read another hundred or so new books and I have forgotten a lot of the story.  Now, when I tried to pick up on the story that I knew had gaps that would be filled in by the opposing viewpoint I had a really tough time getting back into the flow of plot.  Anytime you pick up a subsequent story in a series you always spend a little time rebuilding the mental architecture that takes you back into that world and its characters.  The new book constantly gives you hints that brings you back into that flow.  However, when those hints are incomplete, as this experiment dictates, it becomes twice as hard to rebuild that mental framework.  Sadly, it made this book seem very disjointed and because of that, somewhat boring.

We can’t blame Wight’s writing style as there is nothing wrong there at all.  It boils down to the failure of the experiment during the writing timeline.  For a reader that picks these up five years from now, I doubt they will have the same problems if they can progress from one novel to the next without pause.  It just doesn’t seem to work if you are trying to stay current and picking up the books as they are released.

Anyway, back to the story.  This books picks up where the last one left off. Shera and her crew are now on the defensive after the passing of the emperor.  They, and the Consultant guild, find themselves in a battle with the factions of light.  Another annoyance with this book is that we spend very little time in the present.  Most of the novel takes us deep into the backstory.  This is something that is always appreciated as it really fleshes out and gives life and builds empathy to the characters but it feels like the plot that takes place in the present is just not moving forward at all.  If this were a marathon, the first book took us nicely past the nine mile mark.  This second installment takes us just one mile further while spending almost all of its time talking about why we decided to get into running in the first place.

I did appreciate that Wight was not afraid to move major characters to the headman’s block.  This keeps the sense of danger that anyone can die real and meaningful.  The characters become even more relatable and interesting over the course of the novel but again my primary complaint is that they just don’t accomplish enough in the present.

If you were a fan of the first round of this series, it’s worth continuing but I would recommend waiting until the second novel for the light side comes out so you can read the two book together.  My hope is that will bring a little more clarity to the plot.

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Of Shadow & Sea (The Elder Empire: First Shadow)

This is really just a continuation of the previous review.  Of Shadow & Sea is the sister novel to of Sea & Shadow and it’s very obvious that Will Wight shines much brighter when he’s in the dark.  Just like in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy, the dark characters in this novel are much more interesting.  Calder Marten has his moments as the lovable rogue but you never see the complexity experienced by those that grow up in Shadow.  The back stories are more interesting, the subplots are more engrossing and the interplay between the characters seems more genuine and feels like there is more at stake for each of them.

Granted, this may all be because I was already introduced to the world by the sister novel and so didn’t have to multitask between understanding new concepts while gradually getting to know the characters.  But I don’t think that’s it.  I think that Wight likes these characters more because they are counter culture and the life of an assassin clearly floats his boat more than, well, an intrepid seaman.

Our main character in the book is Shera.  Shera never had an easy life.  We are introduced to her as a young street thug.  On the streets, she is the ultimate survivor in that ruthless killing doesn’t seem to phase her one bit.  I spent much of the novel wondering if her complete lack of empathy was a survival mechanism or some form of autism or flat out psychopathy.  One of her less endearing characteristics is that she can and will fall asleep at any opportunity.  I found this a little annoying at first but as the book evolved, I believe that this constant semi-narcolepsy was really her escape mechanism.

While the author does not dive too deeply in to the messed up psychology of a trained killer, he also doesn’t shy away from it.  We often find ourselves right there with Shera as she is asking herself ‘why don’t I feel bad about doing these terrible things?’.  These are the right questions, the hard questions that bring about a true connection with the reader.  None of these emotions are resolved in the first book and near the end there is obvious foreshadowing that the complexity of these interactions is just going to grow.  That’s a good thing.

Shera’s supporting cast is much better developed than Calder’s.  I care much more about what happens to Meia and Lucan than I ever did about Calder’s crew.  Calder’s crew were more photographic archetypes, who looked like they had depth at a distance but we never got the pleasure to cross the velvet line and look at em up close to see the cracks and blemishes that make art all the more interesting.  Meia and Lucan were also deeply flawed characters and I mean that in the most complementary way.  Flaws open the door for conflict and all good books need conflict to keep you engaged.  That’s part of the reason why the interplay between this threesome is interesting and natural.

I also got the pleasure of knowing what was going to happen at the end of the novel but experiencing it from a different viewpoint.  This is risky because if the reader knows what is going to happen at the end, you may lose them early.  The risk pays off though because you get to understand how perspective makes all the difference in any story.  Whether in real life or fiction, perspective makes the same story feel totally new.

Looking forward to the next books.

Of Sea & Shadow (The Elder Empire: Sea Book 1)

 

I first encountered Will Wight’s work in his City of Light series.  In that series I was blown away by how he completely changed the dynamic of yet another young hero that needs to fulfill a prophecy.  He decided to instead focus not on the hero of the prophecy but one of his lesser known friends who turned out to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the two dimensional ‘hero’.  In Of Sea & Shadow, Wight continues to experiment.  He released two books at the same time Of Sea & Shadow and its companion Of Shadow & Sea.  He warns that these two books tell essentially the same story but from a different character’s point of view.  This reminds me of Card’s novel Shadow of the Hegemon which retold the Ender’s Game story from Bean’s point of view.  Sounded boring at first blush but turned out to be brilliant.

I’ve only just begun the companion novel, Of Shadow & Sea,  so this review will focus solely on the lighter side.  Wight respects the intelligence of the reader by asking a lot from them.  His world building tosses the reader right into the mix without introducing any of the terms or concepts that are meant to be commonplace in the prose and then slowly filling these terms in as the plot progresses.  This has always been an enjoyable way to ease into a new world, almost like learning a new science or programming language.  Some elements you have to take on faith early on that you will understand later as you gain more experience in the world.

This one has a little extra challenge associated with it due to the grand experiment Will Wight has taken on.    The extra challenge is that you know that you are not going to get any of the extra tidbits until you start reading the companion novel.  Just reading one of the books is almost like doing a Sudoku puzzle without using any 4s or 7s.  You know that there are going to be gaps but is it still enjoyable?

Luckily, it is.  Wight always does a great job of characterization, you end up really caring about what happens to his characters, and when you’re done you feel like these folks could have been a part of your past.  I did struggle a little bit more with these characters than with previous novels due to some of the gaps but I found myself looking forward to seeing how they would be filled in deeper in the next novel.  I also had a good time guessing who would be the main character in the next novel.

On to the plot.  The novel introduces you quickly to the swashbuckling protagonist, Calder Marten.  Calder is the captain of a large ship with a very small crew.  The reason for the small crew is that Calder is a Reader that is intimately linked to his ship.  The ship is an extension of his mind and he can control sails and rigging like just another appendage. Wasn’t super clear on how the crew sailed the ship when he was sleeping but little details like that don’t take away from the enjoyment of the book.

The world is run by Guilds that each have some level of mystical prowess.  Calder is part of the Navigator’s guild but he was raised as part of the Blackwatch.  The Blackwatch monitor Elder activity.  The Elders are the supernatural beings that populate the depths of the world.  You don’t want to run into these guys on a vacation because you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a bad time.  The world itself is an Empire run by an Emperor who has recently passed on.  The ambient power struggles that Calder finds himself in are around the Guilds trying to decide who should take on the burden of leadership left by the void of the recently deceased Emperor.

Calder takes on a couple of passengers that belong to the Watchers guild against the warnings of his first mate.  These passengers end up being somewhat dickish both in personality and in the fact that they are assassination targets of the Consultants.  The Consultants are a deadly Guild with a shit list.  Calder’s passengers are on it.

Most of the novel is around understanding the motivation behind these passengers as they move from one threat to the next.  Throughout each of these threats we get regular flashbacks to Calder growing up.  This is where most of the world building happens.

Overall, it was thoroughly entertaining and as I’m now about a third of the way through it’s companion novel, I’m really enjoying watching yin slowly fit into yang.  Should be a good series.

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