Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick

The Basics:
The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick
Angry Robot
Fantasy, Alternative History
Published June 24, 2014 (Happy Book Day!)
Source: Received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Amazon.ca Kobo.com

Why I picked up this book:

I love Angry Robot and this looked cool!


In a land riven with plague, inside the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control: the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation.

And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack...

Assassination; ancient, impossible machines; torture and infamy – just another typical day in paradise

My thoughts:

For me, The Shadow Master was a hodge podge of elements.

The cover and the description made think assassination, maybe a bit of fantasy, a dose of romance, a dash of scheming.....

This is what I ended up with, I think?

There's a heavy Renaissance Italian influence in terms of names, and aesthetic. Obviously with the star-crossed lovers reference, we're drawing a bit on Romeo and Juliet but that component is so small compared to the larger plot. It only provides some motivation for characters to act, really.

For the most part, I liked this component. I felt a little stupid because for the first few chapters I had a hard time keeping Lorenzo and Leonardo separate in my mind, simply because of their names (alongside the Lorraine family). Otherwise though, I had a clear image in my mind of the architecture and general, well, aethetic of the book. So overall, a positive.

There's some intriguing fantasy and steampunk elements. The two competing houses have two competing inventors who also understand that they need to maintain the delicate balance between the two houses to avoid the city imploding. With me on this? So this means a lot of their efforts are sunk into  things that entertain and that can be used for the betterment of humanity at large, rather than for making war. Clockwork devices seem quite notably in use.

Of course, then there's the animal-inspired devices. Though everyone in the book swears they're made possible through 'science', it was clear to me that something magical was at work. People seem to meld with these inventions, gaining strength from them or agility or other abilities. I found this quite clever (though I have no idea how they would be explained using science, truly. Perhaps a certain amount of glossing over is at work here).

So - more positives?

Here's the problem - I have no idea what happened at the end of the book. None. I mean, I know what happened because I read it. And I can jot out a rough timeline of events. But... I don't really *know* what happened. And that bugs me a lot. I wanted some closure, or at least a sense that the characters were as baffled as I was - and thus were expecting to get their questions answered in the next book (as I presume there will be a next book). But no, no they seemed to generally understand what was going on. I was, sadly, left in the dark.

I think the plot was so delightfully twisty and turny with schemes and the like that a lot of the cooler elements weren't leveraged. The plague had a lot of potential, and certainly applied some pressure to diplomacy within the city, but I feel like there were several threads regarding it left dangling. I wanted more to the romance than we were given - the section introducing it was thick with references to the development of the attraction and this secret language that was developed, but we didn't get any real time with the couple and that bugged me.

There were a few other things that I thought we could have had more answers regarding, or that needed to play out a bit more. Material for the sequel, I suppose....

A final remark - I had forgotten this between reading the book and writing the review roughly twenty four hours later, but glancing at Goodreads for the blurb, I spotted someone else remarking on it in the comments and I had to say something too: The language around sex is quite amusing. I don't know if this an effort to really ground the book in a certain atmosphere or period or what have you, but alongside the far more down-to-earth style of speech used by, e.g., Lorenzo and the Shadow Master, the metaphorical references to parts of the body and such were pretty entertaining and odd.

Bottom line:

I wanted to like this one - I'm a fan of Angry Robot. I'm a fan of period books. I'm a fan of fantasy and steampunk. I'm a fan of romance. I especially love thief/rogue/assassin/spy type tales in historical or fantasy settings. So this should have really worked for me. Unfortunately, the confusing ending left me scratching my head and hoping for some clarity in a follow-up novel. I still enjoyed it, and would recommend it if your reading tastes are in line with mine. Just... keep in mind that there's some question marks at the end?

3.5 stars
For fans of alternate history, fantasy, steampunk, shadowy escapades, really cool inventions

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