Fiction Reviews

The River of Shadows

(2011) Robert V. S. Redick, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 549pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08184-0


I think I have mentioned before that I am getting hooked on sea-based stories in my dotage, and having thoroughly enjoyed The Red Wolf Conspiracy and The Rats and the Ruling Sea, the first two books in Robert V. S. Redick's The Chathrand Voyage series, I was looking forward hugely to reading this. For fans of the series I am happy to report then that, one or two minor reservations aside, it does not disappoint.

We pick up the story with The Chathrand having survived crossing the Ruling Sea and its crew pitched up on the shores of the legendary Bali Adro empire, a place none of them believed existed until seeing it with their own eyes, although now they are here, nothing has prepared them for the radically altered face of humanity they encounter. But the problems don't end there. Morale is low along with food and water, and with a great many of their number having perished in the storms and fighting that marked the crossing, the spectre of mutiny is rearing its ugly head. Additionally the loose alliance sworn to fight the sorcerer Arunis is also troubled. Tarboy Pazel Pathkendle is at loggerheads with admiral's daughter Thasha Isiq because she has taken up with the mysterious medical assistant, Greysan Fulbreech, and despite his jealousy, Pazel is convinced there's something fishy about the young man. Meanwhile Neeps, Marila and Chadfallow are still prisoners of the Ixchel's mysterious gas although fortunately so are assassin Sandor Ott, Captain Rose and the Lady Oggosk. But against these odds, the battle with Arunis to wield control over the unlimited power of the Nilstone continues, and the ancient sorcerer is closer than the rebels to mastering its secrets. As his plan begins to reach fruition, the only way to stop him is if they all put aside their grievances, join forces and pursue the sorcerer across this strange, dangerous and often deadly land.

Book by book Redick is becoming one of the most imaginative and exciting fantasy writers around. I have said before that the scope of these novels is just immense but between the almost 600 pages of this latest tome you will find action and adventure, romance, thrills, jealousy and betrayal, political intrigue, racism and bigotry, magic and even time travel! While that would ordinarily be enough for most people, Redick manages to tell this epic story with a twisting, turning guessing game of a plot, via multiple points of view, using new language that always intrigues without puzzling and dialogue that really crackles, spoken by a huge cast of rich and complex characters that all seem to have their moment in the sun. It is astoundingly impressive stuff, it truly is.

However, despite this complexity, The River of Shadows is easy to digest, Redick's prose having a light touch and plenty of humour without being simplistic, and the major characters having distinct enough voices to enable the reader to follow sometimes lengthy sections of speech without losing track of who said what to whom. Also, once again we have Captain Rose's letters to his father to break things up and this time there is even a glimpse of Fiffengurt's journal by way of contrast. The footnotes from the books 'narrator' are also still here supplying additional information on aspects of the world for the reader, but where the action in the first two books was contained largely in on the giant ship, in this book the story finally moves on land and Redick proves he can world-build alongside the best of them. The Dlömic city of Masalym with its mechanical dry-dock system and dome containment centres, their superstition regarding the zombie-like tol-chenni, battling fire trolls to reach the Infernal Forest thick with giant fungi, the Spider Tellers temple at Vasparhaven and the River of Shadows itself, flowing between worlds, and at its heart the Orfuin Club, a neutral ground where demon and angel can meet and negotiate - in fact there is so much invention between these pages, written with such exuberance, that you worry Redick will have nothing left for further books.

I said at the beginning I had a couple of reservations and so it is only fair I voice them. The first is with the sheer number of characters - in particular new characters - that the story engages. While they are all well drawn the downside is that some of those we came to know and love in the first two books get very little page-time in this novel. The two main characters are mostly always centre stage but supporting characters like Hercol Stanapeth, Sander Ott, Captain Rose and others are relegated to bit-parts and that's a shame. The second is that, despite the labyrinthine plot, some of the beats were very predictable, maybe not in how they would happen, but certainly in that they would. While in itself that is not a bad thing, especially given the nature of storytelling, it would have been nice to have been surprised a bit more often.

Having said all that The River of Shadows is still a fine, fine book that enthrals and entertains as much, if not more, than its predecessors and paves the way for a gripping finale. In true fantasy tradition 'The Chathrand Voyage' series was originally conceived as a trilogy but, unsurprisingly given the scope, it has morphed into a quartet with the final book of the series The Night of the Swarm now nestling comfortably atop my inner 'most anticipated' pile.

Robert Grant

This review was first published at SCI-FI-LONDON.

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