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Friday, November 16, 2007

"Slaves of the Shinar" by Justin Allen

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Four months after Justin Allen’s debut “Slaves of the Shinar” was released on July 19, 2007, I finally received a copy thanks to the author who not only sent me the book personally, but also autographed it for me :) Even before Mr. Allen’s incredible generosity, I was really looking forward to reading “Slaves of the Shinar” which was described as ‘part Homer, part Tolkien, & part R. Scott Bakker’. While the press releases have been a bit generous with their descriptions, “Slaves of the Shinar” is definitely a solid first effort that history buffs, epic fantasy lovers, and adventure fans alike can appreciate.

On the very last page of “Slaves of the Shinar”, we meet King Gilgamesh of Old Testament-era Mesopotamia as he’s contemplating the myths of his city Uruk, including the hunter Enkidu, Jared, Aggaseir, the war with the Nephilim, the connection to Noah and so on. “Slaves of the Shinar” is that legend come to life as realized by Justin Allen. While a few names have been spelled differently and there are a couple of exaggerations like the animal-like ‘savages’, the book is very much grounded in reality with the fantastical parts limited to some palm-reading/fortune-telling and recurring dreams. As far as the plot, “Slaves of the Shinar” centers on two main protagonists. One is Uruk, a giant, ‘black-skinned’ tribesman turned thief that seeks to change his destiny. The other is Ander, a long-time slave of the Dagonor Mines who escapes and unites the people of the Shinar against the conquering Niphilim. In the city of Kan-Puram, their two storylines will converge, war ignites and the fate of the land will be shaped by the most unlikely of heroes including farmers, thieves, priests and slaves. Inflamed by such convictions as honor, vengeance, companionship, courage, and freedom, “Slaves of the Shinar” is legend made real…

For me, “Slaves of the Shinar” reminded me more of such Hollywood movie epics as Troy and Gladiator than it does any other book that I’ve read, though I did see shades of David Anthony Durham in the writing. In other words, the book seemed to focus more on entertaining the reader with its fast pacing, straightforward plotting, likeable heroes, evil villains and testosterone-fueled action rather than trying to authenticate the ancient setting. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather read a book that is accessible and fun like “Slaves of the Shinar” instead of a historical fiction that reads like a textbook, but I thought the world felt toned down and could have been depicted much more realistically than it was. Additionally, I thought there were some really interesting themes in the book that the author didn’t take full advantage of such as the racial prejudices between the pale-skinned/blonde-headed Niphilim, the ‘black-heads’ (Shinars) and the ‘black-skinned’, as well as the tension existing between the rich and the poor, the criminals and the differing priesthoods, especially when they had to work together.

My biggest issues with the book though were twofold. First was the way the characters were handled. As mentioned earlier, “Slaves of the Shinar” revolves around Uruk and Ander, but Mr. Allen actually utilizes many different perspectives in addition to the two protagonists. Normally I’m a fan of this kind of set-up, but the problem here is that a lot of the narratives have a tendency of perishing in the middle of the book only to be replaced by a character that is not much different from the original. This happens more than once with priests, Niphilim captains, etc. Furthermore, with so many point-of-views to contend with, character development is lacking, particularly when it came to the book’s two leads Uruk and Ander. Sure, the duo are featured more prominently than the others, most notably Uruk, and we get to see some flashbacks regarding their pasts, but they and a lot of the other secondary characters could have been fleshed out much better than they were. Plus, I was a bit annoyed at how a couple of figures showed up so late in the book like the Niphilim’s high priest Antha-Kane who had all the makings of being a great villain if only he had been developed earlier. Secondly, I don’t know if this was a fault of the editor or the author, but the pacing of the story was a bit haphazard, with various moments where it seemed like an act or two was missing. Also, I had a minor problem with the way the battle scenes were written—less grand and lifelike than I would have liked—but I think this was more of a personal issue ;)

Problems aside, I really enjoyed “Slaves of the Shinar”. The ancient Mesopotamian backdrop was fascinating and I liked how events were connected at the end of the book to such recognizable mythology as Gilgamesh, Noah, the city of Uruk, etc. Uruk himself was a great heroic character to root for and despite the issues I had with the characterization, I did love the camaraderie that existed in the book especially between Uruk & Dog. I did think the novel was a bit mainstream and could have been bloodier & more violent than it was, but action/adventure fans should still be satisfied by what “Slaves of the Shinar” has to offer including a couple of excellent showdowns :)

Compared to the other fantasy debuts that I’ve read this year, “Slaves of the Shinar” is not as impressive as Mark J. Ferrari’sThe Book of Joby”, Joe Abercrombie’sThe Blade Itself”, Patrick Rothfuss’The Name of the Wind”, or Wayne Barlowe’sGod’s Demon”, but I would rate it alongside Brian Ruckley’sWinterbirth” which actually has a lot in common, especially being that they are both ‘gritty, realistic’ fantasies. In my opinion though, “Slaves of the Shinar” is much more accessible, but like “Winterbirth”, eventually falls short because of its shortcomings. Personally, I was probably more critical of “Slaves of the Shinar” than usual. In spite of the book’s flaws, I really liked it and was frustrated by how great the novel could have been. Still, for a debut, “Slaves of the Shinar” is an impressive showing and it will be interesting to see where Justin Allen goes from here…

9 comments:

Graeme Flory said...

I've got this one waiting to be read, having read your review I'm looking forward to finally getting round to it!

Robert said...

I'll be interested to see what you think! Definitely a good read that could have been great...

jp said...

I picked up this book shortly after it was released and really enjoyed it. I was glad to see that Robert liked the book, and while he does bring up some issues, I actually liked a change of pace from the standard "hero quest". I do agree that this will be a great book for fantasy readers, especially for those that can see some of the more subtle historical aspects of the world around the characters.

Katya Dyachuk said...

I'm glad to see your review of the book. I read it soon after it came out and was surprised to not see it get reviewed a bit more. I mostly agree with your assessment but wonder if some of the trouble that the author had in pulling off the book were not from the difficulty of trying to go between genre and styles. I thought it was much more of an "american" book than the typical "english" style fantasy. This isn't for everyone, I guess, but I liked it quite a lot. It's not a fantasy book as such, but not really historical fiction. That might turn some people off but for me made it quite enjoyable, even if this attempt to split styles was, in the end, perhaps a bit too hard to pull off in a first novel. I'll be interested to see what Allen does next. Anyway, I thought it was a good book, and recommend it.

Jeff C said...

This book sounds interesting now, after reading your review. I recently read and enjoyed Winterbirth. Are the 2 books similiar enough that if i really like Winterbirth, I would probably really like Slaves of Shinar? Is it part of a series or end with some sort of resolution?

Robert said...

JP/Katya, thanks for sharing your comments! I do agree with you that Justin's book is not your typical fantasy. That's why I had trouble finding anyone else to compare it to, because it's kind of in its own little niche, which is a good thing :)

Jeff, the two books are similar in tone, but "Slaves of the Shinar" is much more accessible than "Winterbirth" and not nearly as complicated plot-wise. Also, "Slaves of the Shinar" is not part of a series. It's a standalone novel and everything gets resolved nicely at the end :) For that alone, I'd recommend the book...

Jeff C said...

Thanks for the info, Robert. I might have to use one of those weekly borders rewards coupons on that book soon.

Jay Rogers said...

Robert,

Thanks for all the hard work. I am sure I speak for everyone when I say how much we appreciate the effort you put into your reviews. I got this book on my birthday on the 11th and was a bit worried when I read your review, but it turned out to be great. I definitely got caught up in the epic nature of story. I found the fight scenes exciting and the characters interesting. I am a little disappointed that Allen isn’t planning on writing a sequel or even better a prequel. You said this was his debut book, but do you know if he has anything else in the works?
Thanks again

Robert said...

You're welcome Jeff, and if you do get a copy, feel free to let us know what you think of the book!

Jay, thanks for the wonderful comments and for sharing your thoughts! I'm glad you enjoyed the book :) Yeah, it's a bit disappointing that he's not writing a sequel--as far as I know--but at the same time, it's also refreshing considering how almost every fantasy/sci-fi novel anymore has at least one follow-up these days. As far as his next project, it's called "The American" and is an American literary fantasy with gunfighters, cowboys, indians, and a few classic literar characters...

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