Review Date: Tuesday, August 28, 2007
From the fractured mindscape of a mage clinging to sanity to the inky black depths of the Inner Sea, Paul S. Kemp takes us on a journey as heady as it is fantastical in Shadowbred.
The first novel of The Twilight War series, Shadowbred continues the saga of Erevis Cale and the fate of Faerûn’s Sembia, which increasingly rests on his shoulders. Now while I usually abhor any book with gratuitous use of ‘dark’ or ‘shadow’ in its title (the next installments in the series are Shadowstorm & Shadowrealm) I’m glad I made an exception here because Paul’s latest is my favorite new fantasy series.
Shadowbred starts off with a look at the royal family of Shade Enclave, the last remaining city of the Netheril Empire that was destroyed thousands of years ago. Through a pact with the Goddess Shar, the Lady of Loss and Keeper of the Secret Weave, the city of Shade Enclave was transported to the Plane of Shadow during the time of the Empire’s demise. Now, the floating city has returned to Faerûn’s sky along with the Netherese’s ambitions of raising a new empire. Their gaze falls upon Sembia where Prince Rivalen (of the royal family) has spent years sowing the seeds for the country’s demise.
Back in Sembia Erevis Cale, the thief turned assassin turned royal butler turned shade, is trying to abide by a friend’s wish and help humanity. He regularly thwarts off attacks on the innocent and saves small towns from marauding trolls, but his path in life hasn’t felt right since he stopped devotions to his patron god Mask the Shadowlord (God of Thieves). A dangerous killer in his own right, Cale has become even more fearsome since his transformation into a shade. Now shadows ooze from Cale’s skin, his wounds regenerate in minutes, and one step through darkness can put him miles across terrain.
But even Cale’s nearly indestructible nature isn’t prepared for the events that are quickly spinning out of control. Prince Rivalen and his agents of Shar steer Sembia into a civil war, yet their one mistake is capturing the mind mage Magadon, a friend of Cale’s, to help the Shadovar unlock the secrets of a primordial object of power.
As battle lines are drawn, Shade Enclave makes its move, and Cale reluctantly accepts his station as the right hand of Mask, Shadowbred churns into overdrive to create one terrific series opener.
It’s pretty clear from the first few pages that this is a story featuring characters steeped in history. Instead of leaving you dumbfounded about Cale, Magadon, and their other acquaintances, Kemp manages to keep you abreast of things without piling on details. The first few chapters are a little daunting, but there are swift rewards for those who continue, even for someone like me who was completely new to Erevis Cale and largely unfamiliar with the lore of Faerûn.
What Kemp excels at is fleshing out each and every one of his characters without overloading narrative. Cale, Prince Rivalen, and the rest of the gang rip themselves off the pages and force their way into your mind’s eye, demanding to be heard. And for once motivations of the antagonists are crystal-clear and almost relatable, as if their driving force of divine eschatological ruin reflects a dark desire we all harbor within ourselves.
While Kemp’s narration is spot on, his pacing of action and backstory deft, it is his style that keeps you coming back for more. After finishing Shadowbred I picked up the entire Erevis Cale prequel trilogy and, if you give this kickass anti-hero a chance, I bet you will too.
Mania Grade: A+
Author: Paul S. Kemp
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast