Fiction Reviews

Play of Shadows

(2024) Sebastien de Castell, Jo Fletcher Books, £20 /Can$35 / US$28, hrdbk, 482pp, ISBN 978-1-787-47147-4


Like Heinlein’s Double Star, Mary Gentle’s Black Opera, Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Play of Shadows is a story of a play within a story, where the fantasy element is allied with another fiction, that of a theatre production.

Initially, Damelas Chademantaigne appears to be one of those ‘Han Solo’ type characters - a charming rogue, living on his wits and with a quick tongue rather than any other virtues. To reflect this, the book begins with a chase. Damelas is being chased through the streets of Jereste by the Vixen, the most feared duellist in the entire city for having upset one member of the gentry too many. Damelas manages to avoid her and the Iron Orchids (the name of which might be a nod to Michael Moorcock), the local militia that seem to run law and order, to take refuge in the Operetta Belleza, one of the ensembles of actors in the city. It just so happens that due to an ancient law that dictates that anyone in an acting troupe is exempt from prosecution, he is protected from attack.

He then manages to get himself a minor part in the group’s latest production, and along with his loyal friend Beretto meets a diverse group of characters – Hujo Shoville, the group’s director, pompous Ellias Abastrini, the lead actor, actresses Roslyn and Ornella, ill-tempered musician Rhyleis, street minor Zina and assassin Shariza, whose target may or may not be Damelas himself. De Castell does well to integrate unusual locations and memorable characters into an exciting and engaging plot.

Things begin slowly but quickly build into something quite interesting. For much of the first part of the novel Damelas appears to be passive, carried along by events and never in control of things, and despite his bravado often unconfident and seemingly with little grip on events. However, one night a ghostly voice in his head causes Damelas to fumble his lines, inadvertently blurting out a dreadful truth - that Prince Pierzi, the city’s most legendary hero, may actually be a traitor and a brutal murderer. This causes outrage and Damelas finds himself brought to the attention of Duke Monsegino, the new and seemingly weak reigning Duke of Pertine.

Seemingly as a punishment, Damelas is commanded by Monsegino to present a play telling the story of Pierzi’s nemesis, Corbier, who is usually the villain of such tales, with Chademantaigne himself elevated to the lead role of the Red Eyed Raven (another nod to Michael Moorcock, I think) - even though the troupe know that such a heretical tale will be greeted with outrage and protests. To me this sounds like something similar to the story of Jesus Christ being told from the perspective of Judas Iscariot.

At the same time, Damelas finds himself more and more susceptible to visions showing him things that he should not know, things seen from Corbiers's perspective that show a very different range of events from those traditionally told in the play. More so, he finds himself on stage giving dialogue that is not his, but seemingly words from the Red Eyed Raven himself.

This retelling of famous historical events does not go down well with everyone. When one of the troupe is killed by the Iron Orchids in order to send a message - they were hoping to catch Damelas - Damelas steps up to the situation and takes a more active role in making things happen, namely to bring to justice the Iron Orchid killers and prop up the new Duke. It is realised that Damelas may be a Veristor, someone who can see and relive memories from the past. The premise of the story may suggest that reincarnation or at least possession is possible, which lead to further questions. Do spirits linger in places where foul deeds have occurred? And why has Damelas been chosen at this time to portray this misjustice?

In terms of bigger issues, the book raises some interesting questions as the characters slipstream through time and the ghostly presences of the past impact upon those of the present Of course, there’s also a huge secret conspiracy that seems to be connected to Damelas and those around him.

With this skill, the play and Damelas, using his visions, are a great success. By the third part of the play, on the third night, we discover a wider truth and find Damelas and his fellow actors rising to the occasion as things all come to a head and chaos reigns across the city. There’s a nice epilogue that I suspect might mean more to those who have read the other 'Greatcoat' books and will please the more regular readers of the whole series.

The first thing that struck me on reading this novel was the luxuriant language used. De Castell fills his narrative with prose that seems somewhat ornate and yet wholly appropriate to the extravagant plot. The names and nomenclature throughout have an Italianate tone which does much to create an appropriately baroque sense of place. As you might expect from a trained fencer, there’s a lot of details of fencing duels going on; de Castell adds a lot of swash and buckle here.

Although the book may be a little too long at about 500 pages, being quite lengthy means that the journey that Damelas takes from start to finish does not seem particularly rushed or forced. Whilst there are definite time pressures involved – creating a play from scratch in seven days is no mean feat! – the events seem appropriately paced. I was pleased that my initial impressions of characters were often actually something different at the end.

With this and the prequel Crucible of Chaos beginning a new series, I can see Play of Shadows as a new beginning of a series with potential. It’s a good place to start if you’ve not tried de Castell’s books before, as you do not have to read the previous Greatcoat books, including Crucible of Chaos to enjoy this one. I haven't, but am now tempted to try them.

Mark Yon


[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 24.4.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]