Thursday, 20 May 2010

‘Shadow’s Son’ – Jon Sprunk (Gollancz/Pyr)

Assassins! Whether they’re meting out justice or killing purely for coin, if you need ‘one of those jobs’ doing then you can be pretty certain of finding the right person for the job in any city across the length and breadth of ‘Fantasyland’. And that’s kind of the problem really, sometimes it feels like you can’t move without tripping over an assassin or three. Assassins are without a doubt the coolest people in fantasy literature so bunging a few in your book is the best way to sell extra copies. When it gets to the point though where authors are having to invent Guild Wars to cull the local assassin population (because they breed like rabbits apparently...) then you just know that there’s a surfeit of assassins and maybe fantasy literature needs to be looking in a new direction for the next cool thing. There’s also so much that you can do with an assassin for a character. They kill people, sometimes getting all angst ridden over their chosen profession, and... erm... that’s it.

You’ve probably guessed what I think about assassins by now so when I received a copy of ‘Shadow’s Son’ for review I approached it with a little trepidation. Assassins are cool but did I want to be reading the same story about assassins all over again? As it turned out, I got something a little different to what I’d been expecting. The problems I had were with something else altogether.

Most assassins are prone to introspection about the darker side of their job and whether they should be killing people at all. Not Caim however. Not only does his work as an assassin in the holy city of Othir pay very well but Caim actually enjoys it at the same time. Not bad work if you can get it.
Things are about to get out of hand though as the changing political climate in Othir is about to reach out and suck Caim right into a maelstrom and dark magic. Caim will quite happily take credit for the work that he does do but when someone tries to pin a murder on him that he didn’t commit, that’s a different story entirely...

Reading through ‘Shadow’s Son’ can be very much like reading any one of a number of ‘assassin fantasies’ at times. Knife fights in dark alleys, shadowy rooftop chases... it’s all happening again in ‘Shadow’s Son’. You can excuse this up to a point. After all, an assassin’s work is going to be the same wherever you go and it’s more often than not done under the cover of darkness. That didn’t stop me getting that sense of déjà vu though and there were times when I felt that I could have been reading another novel entirely and that there wasn’t a lot to mark out ‘Shadow’s Son’ as a title in it’s own right...

It’s a good job then that these occasions were relatively few and far between. Sprunk recognizes that he needs to do things differently and does it with great aplomb.

Without giving too much away, you will come away from ‘Shadow’s Son’ feeling that you have seen these characters before in other books. Part of this is down to the relative shortness of the book (my advance copy is a mere 281 pages long), there’s only so much you can fit into any one space! However, Sprunk does take time to give little hints about each character that makes them a little bit more than they first appear and interestingly so. It’s not just Caim’s skill as an assassin that will have me coming back for a sequel; tantalising glimpses into his past (and how these will affect his future) flesh his character out and made me want to find out what happens to him on his journey. Do I spy a love triangle on the horizon? Possibly so and for the first time ever (I think) it’s one that I want to see play out.
Josey’s character is also an interesting one to follow as her pampered ways are slowly changed by her experiences of the Lower City. While her revelation won’t come as much of a surprise to any fan of fantasy literature the way in which Sprunk pulls it off does. I never saw it coming...

When Sprunk gets going, he writes with an energy that has to be experienced to be believed. Sprunk knows that if your main character is up against a wall and facing ten swordsman then the resulting fight for your life can’t be written at anything other than a break neck pace. Not only does Sprunk more than deliver on this score but he remains in control of his writing the whole time. Nothing gets away from him and and the resulting passages are a lot tighter for it. Sprunk’s eye for spectacle means that if ‘Shadow’s Son’ was ever made into a film I’d definitely be there to watch it. He has a real feel for what he wants his characters to do and where he wants them to do it. When Sprunk is really on fire, the end result is action that’s almost perfectly choreographed and looks damn cool!

It’s a shame then that it can’t be like that all the time. When Sprunk has assassins, and weird magical phantasms, going at it full tilt then things are just great but the spark seems to die out when talk of the politics of Othir come into play. Sprunk has created a vibrant cityscape but while the results of the politicking (fireballs and riots!) are eye-catching the politicking itself is less so. Although it is the catalyst for everything that happens Othir’s politics seem somehow disengaged from the wider picture, possibly because it’s not something that you can write about in the same way you would a rooftop knife fight with a demonic sorcerer. Whatever the reason, this made for some moments where the pace of the novel fell into a ‘stop/start’ routine that was difficult to stay with.

Despite this though, ‘Shadow’s Son’ is a thoroughly entertaining read that had me wondering if perhaps all assassin stories aren’t the same after all. The book has it’s flaws but that won’t stop me from picking the sequel up (and the one after that)... Look out for this one in July if you're in the UK, US readers will be able to pick it up a month earlier.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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