22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Shadow's Son (Shadow Saga) (Paperback)
In my own private world the assassin with a heart of gold is almost as big a cliche as the similarly-inclined whore, and perhaps even more annoying than the poor wench. I have never been able to understand some people's infatuation with ruthless killers that end up saving the day while being very mean and bad-ass about it. Somehow it always rings false to me. However, I have a soft spot for newcomers, and so I decided to acquaint myself with Jon Sprunk and his debut novel, Shadow's Son.
Caim is an assassin with an appropriately tortured past, plying his trade in the corrupt city of Othir - capital of the Nemean Empire, ruled by the Church of the True Faith, after a coup that disposed of the last Emperor seventeen years ago. When a routinely-looking job goes wrong, and people begin to die left and right (that is, without Caim's help), he becomes entangled in the intrigues and ambitions of the nobility and the Church. His only allies are Kit - a mysterious spirit woman that only he could see and hear, who has been his companion since early childhood - and Josephine, daughter of his last target. Now the assassin has to fight not only for his life, but also for the girl he has been tied to, and the city he secretly loves. But to stay alive, Caim might be forced to call upon a power hidden deep inside him - one that he has spent his entire life trying to deny. The power of shadows.
Shadow's Son is a fast-paced action ride. Like most assassin fantasy novels out there, it could easily be put under the Young Adult flag, if it wasn't for the blood, gore and violence factor. The characters are clich... archetypes, their motivations simple and clearly stated in POVs and dalogues. The story is straightforward, and even though the plot is intrigues-ridden, it all really boils down to who is going to murder whom first. Sprunk's style of writing drags a little at the beginning, but the book soon finds its stride and becomes engrossing page-turner. The action scenes (mostly duels with swords and knives) are good, even if they couldn't compare to Scott Bakker's flowing descriptions or David Gemmell's dynamic sequences. However, as someone who has had the dubious honor of translating Richard A. Knaak' s game tie-ins in another language, I think I am qualified enough to say that Jon Sprunk's fighting scenes are among the more successful in the genre.
Where he fails though, is the world-building and history of his world. Although only a part of a series, Shadow's Son should have been able to give way more flesh to the setting, and to some recent events. We get no real feeling of the Empire, and even though certain on-going wars and exotic neighbors are mentioned, they never appear a second time and the reader is left hanging. Even Othir herself gives the impression of being comprised of one poor street, one rich street, a half-finished cathedral, an Evil Castle and Another Evil Castle. Nothing like the fleshed-out Luthadel from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, or Scott Lynch's Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora. The real threat to the Empire is also just vaguely shown - the supernatural Shadow and its servants from the Other Side seem really interesting - but I guess it will play a bigger role in next installments. Then we have the Evil Chirch of Evil, which oppresses everyone and is at the root of all the characters' dramas EVER, but we never learn anything about the regime it replaces (supposedly it wasn't better), or even what the Chirch's dogmas are, beside the fact that it is pseudo-Christian and very corrupt. And we really should have more information, considering how crucial it is to the plot.
In the end, those are not book-ruiners though. True, Shadow's Son lacks depth of world and history, but it more than compensates with non-stop action and an Evil Conspiracy plot (if a bit simplistic one) of the type that makes you devour every page until you reach the inevitable convergence. I have to admit that Jon Sprunk's fascination with sodomy struck me as curiously morbid (or, as Kruppe would suggest, morbidly curious) - as I consider it a really strange city guard, whose members' first instinct when they catch an adolescent thief is to try and rape him - but that is not a book-ruiner either.
What ruined the book for me, was one scene toward the end, where Sprunk crossed the border between violent-but-simple-and-entertaining-assassin-fantasy, and unsettlingly-disgusting-and-"gritty"-showing-the-ugliness-of-the-world. I'm talking full on Terry Goodkind disgusting. I won't spoil the "fun" for anyone. Suffice to say I don't consider myself a prude, and in the right book this kind of development would be perfectly fine with me. Shadow's Son just isn't the right book for it. And I simply didn't like it as much after this scene.
That said, Jon Sprunk's first novel is engaging and light read, and one that leaves you wanting more. I don't expect that Shadow's Son will be among the best debuts I've read this year, but I will definitely read the sequel, when it's out. The author has undeniable potential, and if he develops his world and gives it a few historical layers - and if he could also refrain from gratuitous "grittiness" - this could turn out to be a truly great series.
P.S. There is a whore with a heart of gold in Shadow's Son. True story.