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Monday, February 3, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: A Tale of Stars and Shadow by Lisa Cassidy (reviewed by David Stewart, Justine Bergman, Lukasz Przywoski and Mihir Wanchoo)




Official Author Website
Order A Tale of Stars & Shadow over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)






AUTHOR INFORMATION: Lisa is a self-published fantasy author by day and book nerd in every other spare moment she has. She’s a self-confessed coffee snob (don’t try coming near her with any of that instant coffee rubbish) but is willing to accept all other hot drink aficionados, even tea drinkers.



She lives in the Australia’s capital city, Canberra, and like all Australians, is pretty much in constant danger from highly poisonous spiders, crocodiles, sharks, and drop bears, to name a few. As you can see, she is also pro-Oxford comma.



CLASSIFICATION: New Adult Epic Fantasy


FORMAT: A Tale of Stars & Shadow was self-published by the author in June 2019 as the first book in the A Tale of Stars & Shadow series. It's available in an e-book and paperback format from most retailers. Cover design by Jessica Biel.

The book counts 502 pages and is divided into 51 numbered chapters. 


DAVID

There is something refreshing about going into a book blind, not knowing anything about its author or content, but only knowing that someone whose opinion you value enjoyed it. This is how I came to A Tale of Stars and Shadow, by Lisa Cassidy, a book that I likely would have never discovered were it not for the SPFBO. That would have been a loss because I enjoyed Talyn Dynan's fish-out-of-water story, and while I perhaps didn't love it as much as I have a few other books in this contest, I think it is a worthy finalist. 


Setting - For me, the setting is largely what makes Stars and Shadow interesting. Talyn, the main character, is from a fairly fantasy-trope-laden nation. It has the impossible detail of a benevolent monarch, but from all accounts it's a typical Euro-centric style fantasy kingdom. Thankfully, Cassidy chucks Talyn into a foreign nation, and we are quickly introduced to Mithranar. The defining trait of Mithranar is that its ruling class is made up of people with wings. As soon as Talyn is off the boat she is surrounded by winged folk, zipping to and fro, and it makes for wonderful imagery. I have not read much, if anything, that featured a flying humanoid race (outside of the Dungeons & Dragons fan-fiction style books that I read as a teenager). For me, this is a novel concept even if it also feels problematic. Flying requires feats of engineering and evolution that are hard to hand-wave away, even in a fantasy land. As much as I enjoyed the notion of an elegant, winged people, agile in movement and angelic in appearance, I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief. Cassidy's only real explanation for how they fly is that they have very strong back and shoulder muscles. Largely, this doesn't matter. There are also people who can project force fields and disappear into shadows, and there isn't much science to explain such phenomenon either. I'm not sure why the flying felt jarring to me in the way that it did, but I did some eye-rolling every time someone took off in flight. 

That said, I loved everything else about the magical land of Mithranar, and largely because it felt so completely fantasy to me. This is the kind of city I love to read about in my speculative fiction. It's soaring in its architecture and dark in its shadowy districts. It felt like something I'd stumble into in a Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age game. This is the highest fantasy, and for all the dark turns that our genre has taken over the past decade, it feels refreshing to come back home to grandeur and spectacle. 

Plot - There is no doubt that Cassidy mapped out this book from beginning to end. Everything is considered here - the reveals very specifically placed and each clue uncovered exactly according to her plan. If I'm wrong in that, I'd be surprised because it almost feels formulaic. Talyn's goal when she reaches the land of Mithranar is to train an elite fighting force to protect the third prince of the monarchy, Cuinn. Cuinn has no guard detail, for reasons that mystify Talyn, and Cuinn's mother, the queen herself, requests aid from a foreign land known for its peerless warriors. Talyn arrives and is allowed her pick of the city dungeons with which to make her new guard detail, and this makes for obvious problems. Meanwhile, in the poorer quarters of the city, a mysterious figure known as the Shadowhawk is striving to create some type of egalitarianism in a nation where the winged folk sit on high and the human population serves them in a capacity just shy of slavery. The trajectory of these two characters is bound to verge, and the dynamic between them is certainly one of the more intriguing points of conflict in the book, even if it's never quite clear why it's important. 


I think the story, the point A to point B and on, is very solid. Talyn's efforts to train her ragtag bunch of recruits is enjoyable, if predictable, and the overall narrative of her struggle with the monarchy and the Shadowhawk is also well done. However, it all feels a little watered down. There's nothing particularly exciting going on in Stars and Shadow, and much of what could have been was predictable. I suspect the authorial intent here was to blow readers away with some late novel reveals, but that didn't work for me. It might have worked for some, and for those this might be their favorite book. For me, I needed more subterfuge in the narrative, something to throw me off the scent, so to speak, and the assumptions that I formed at the halfway point of the novel proved correct to the end. I say this and it sounds like I'm trying to be "very smart," but I don't really try to figure out the stories of novels before they happen. I like to live in the moment of a book, so when my immersion is broken like this by what seem to be obvious plot devices, it hurts the experience. 

Character - Talyn Dynan and the Shadowhawk both are well-written characters. They have believable motivations, good conflicts, and feel like people. Cassidy writes good characters, and I think she even goes a step beyond and writes about them in atypical ways to what we see in most fantasy. Talyn, for instance, is suffering from pretty severe PTSD. She's lost a partner from her former military life - someone as close to her as a spouse. This loss colors her entire experience, causing her to sabotage other possibilities and, in essence, run away from her home. This struggle was one of the most important parts of the book for me, and I think Cassidy handles it extremely well. She manages to avoid the trap that so many authors fall into of finding a magical bandaid that fixes Talyn's life, and instead shows Talyn growing as a person while still struggling with this incredibly traumatic loss. The Shadowhawk has a much different arc, without much growth, but I think there is purpose in writing him this way, and I don't find much fault with his depiction. I suspect his arc takes a much different path in the sequel to Stars and Shadow. 

Rounding out the cast are Talyn's ragtag bunch of ex-prisoners. The book gets a bit trope-heavy with these guys. There's a jaded thief who discovers his heart of gold, a quiet, gentle giant, a disgraced former watch captain, etc. I liked this cast, but I also found them a little tired and found my focus very much on Talyn and Shadowhawk and their struggles. I had the feeling that Cassidy wanted me to feel more for the supporting cast, but for me they were largely forgettable. 

Parting Words - A Tale of Stars and Shadow is a well-written fantasy book that does not really take any risks. It feels like familiar territory, and in some ways this helps it even as it hinders it. Reading this book will not change one's life, but like most of what sustains us, it will nourish it. This is a tough year to be in the SPFBO. The competition is steep, and though I think Stars and Shadow deserves to be a finalist, I don't see it winning. It is a strong contender in a fierce contest that might have fared better in prior years. Regardless, I am happy that I read it and may end up checking out the series some time in the future. 

ŁUKASZ

It’s the only SPFBO 2019 finalist I haven’t heard about before the contest. Judging it by the cover, I wasn’t in a hurry to pick it up. The cover tells nothing about the story, except that there will be blades. It looks… uninspiring? And don’t get me started on the atrocious font. Covers matter. Frankly, I wouldn’t touch it if it weren’t for The Fantasy Hive team announcing it as their finalist. 

And that would be a serious mistake because A Tale of Stars and Shadow is brilliant, immersive and engrossing. I loved it. I bought and read the sequel immediately after finishing it. I plan to occasionally (like every six hours) sent Lisa Cassidy email just to make sure she works on the third book. And that she doesn’t take too many breaks. 

Talyn Dynan was the finest fighter of her generation. Unstoppable, fearless, and ultra-competent. Now, after her partner’s death, she’s broken and wracked with guilt. She quits an elite force known as Callanan and joins Kingshield where her mistakes won’t cost lives. 

For unclear reasons, her superiors send her on a mission to Mithranar, home of the magical winged folk. Officially, she will guard a spoiled and dandy prince. Unofficially, she will investigate mysterious Shadowhawk - a criminal who haunts the streets of Dock City. 

To protect the prince, she must build and train her Wing. Surprisingly, she has to source candidates in jail. Yes, you’ve heard it right. She has to build a guard detail for the Prince from criminals.

She’d known Mithranar had a queen, that the winged folk had magic, and that they were the world’s only producer of izerdia.
But that there was a place in the world where people thought they were superior because they had wings and magic, where the ruling family thought it was acceptable to flog people for disagreeing with them, or to hoard food for themselves… that she hadn’t known.

Cassidy introduces a wonderfully complex and rich world without assaulting the reader with unnecessary details. On the surface, Mithranar is a stunning city. On a closer look, though, it’s easy to see that human lives have little value here and most citizens lead miserable lives.

A Tale of Stars and Shadow never ceases to surprise. With each chapter, it adds new layers of intrigue to the intricate plot. Talyn suspects she’s a puppet in someone else’s game. And that there is more than one game being played. I found most twists and reveals perfectly placed and genuinely surprising. 

The story entranced me from the very first chapter. There is just something that Lisa Cassidy does extremely well that binds me to this story. Her prose is a pleasure to read, it’s crisp, wry, and funny. The story moves quickly, even though we witness some repetitions. She teases us along, and we think at first the answers to the mysteries are obvious, until Talyn uncovers new information and we realize there’s more to the plot. The wrap-up makes for a satisfying ending.

With such compelling protagonists, it wouldn’t have been hard for the supporting cast to be outshone but they manage to hold their own. Because at its heart, A Tale of Stars and Shadow is the story about a Found Family. I think the author nailed it here. Talyn and her Wing develop an empathetic connection and loyalty. Her team includes a stubborn alcoholic, a silent giant with a tattooed face who prefers not to talk, a street-smart thief, and a shy boy who displays preternatural skills with knives. Each of them gets solid, and believable, development.

A Tale of Stars and Shadow is smart, immersive, emotionally engaging and nearly impossible to put down. I absolutely loved it.

MIHIR

Lisa Cassidy’s A Tale Of Stars And Shadow is Fantasy Hive’s entry for the SPFBO finals and it’s a very intriguing one at that.

The story has two main POV protagonists Dumnorix princess and warrior, Talyn Dynan and the cunning but honorable thief Shadowhawk. We are quickly inserted into the plot when Talyn is sent on a special mission to the city of Mithranar. Tasked with guarding a prince of the winged folk, Talyn is forced to endure scorn and has to incorporate her crew from the best of what the local prisons have to offer.  This goes as well as one would expect but Talyn is never one to quit. The Shadowhawk is a thief with an agenda but it’s more of the Robin Hood kind. We never get to learn his identity even in his POV chapters but there are hints and clues interspersed within. The plot is mainly about how these two can find and aid each other while trying to save Mithranar from tearing itself apart.

What I liked about this story was its approach towards characters and how while the story was slightly predictable, it was written with enough infectious energy to maintain the reader’s interest throughout. Both Talyn and Shadowhawk are likeable protagonists who are fun to read about without being Mary Sue/Gary Stu templates. They have frustrating moments, doubtful encounters but their heroic ideals are never misplaced. The worldbuilding is also intriguing but the author just drops us into it without much explanation and only later do we find out more about the separate races and all. Some folks might be irked by this feature. 

For me, this book while enjoyable, had a few faults as well. Mainly the pace of the book isn’t the streamlined type that I was hoping for. The main plot takes a while to get going but once in the flow, it maintains its pace till the action-packed climax. The plot twists are a bit predictable considering the scenarios (Talyn having to build a dependable squad from a group of untrustworthy misfits, Shadowhawk’s identity and interactions with Talyn before the reveal). For new readers, these twists might be exciting but for older and experienced readers, there’s nothing new to be found. The ending also doesn’t tie everything into a neat package but for me that was okay. There are a couple of threads left open for the future books…

Overall A Tale Of Stars And Shadow was a pleasant read that showcased some truly charming writing by Lisa Cassidy. I was expecting a bit more and perhaps that’s where my enjoyment of the story dipped. I would recommend this story to anybody who’s looking for a slightly different kind of fantasy with a solid emphasis on characters, action and a whole lot of fun. 


SPFBO Final Score



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