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Monday, February 15, 2010

“The Conqueror’s Shadow” by Ari Marmell (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Ari Marmell Website
Order “The Conqueror’s ShadowHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ari Marmell, a graduate of the University of Houston with a Creative Writing degree, has several shared-world short stories and novels in publication including “Agents of Artifice” (Magic: the Gathering). “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is the author's first wholly original novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: They called him the Terror of the East. His past shrouded in mystery, his identity hidden beneath a suit of black armor and a skull-like helm, Corvis Rebaine carved a bloody path through Imphallion, aided by Davro, a savage ogre, and Seilloah, a witch with a taste for human flesh. No shield or weapon could stop his demon-forged axe. And no magic could match the spells of his demon slave, Khanda.

Yet just when ultimate victory was in his grasp, Rebaine faltered. His plans of conquest, born from a desire to see Imphallion governed with firmness and honesty, shattered. Amid the chaos of a collapsing army, Rebaine vanished, taking only a single hostage—the young noblewoman Tyannon—to guarantee his escape.

Seventeen years later, Rebaine and Tyannon are married, living in obscurity and raising their children, a daughter and a son. Rebaine has put his past behind him, given up his dreams of conquest. Not even news of Audriss—an upstart warlord following Rebaine’s old path of conquest—can stir the retired warrior to action.

Until his daughter is assaulted by Audriss’s goons.

Now, to rescue the country he once tried to conquer, Rebaine once more dons the armor of the Terror of the East and seeks out his former allies. But Davro has become a peaceful farmer. Seilloah has no wish to leave her haunted forest home. And Khanda . . . well, to describe his feelings for his former master as undying hatred would be an understatement.

But even if Rebaine can convince his onetime comrades to join him, he faces a greater challenge: Does he dare to reawaken the part of him that gloried in cruelty, blood, and destruction? With the safety of his family at stake, can he dare not to?

CLASSIFICATION: Combining lighthearted humor and graphic violence with both traditional fantasy tropes and trope-breaking twists, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is what would happen if you took Dungeons & Dragons and crossed it with the writing styles of David Eddings and Joe Abercrombie...

FORMAT/INFO:The Conqueror’s Shadow” is 448 pages long divided over twenty-eight numbered chapters, a Prologue, and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third-person via several major and supporting characters, but the book mostly focuses on Corvis Rebaine. “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is self-contained, but a sequel is expected to be released the following year.

February 23, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Conqueror’s Shadow” via Bantam Spectra. Cover art provided by Larry Rostant.

ANALYSIS: In addition to his experience with shared worlds, Ari Marmell also has an extensive history writing for role-playing games, and it shows in his Bantam Spectra debut, “The Conqueror’s Shadow”, which is rife with such common fantasy conventions as demons, ogres, gnomes, conquering warlords, sorcerers, mercenaries, spellbooks, magic weapons and armor, haunted forests, vampires, et cetera. Normally this kind of a fantasy novel wouldn’t hold my interest for long, but “The Conqueror’s Shadow” has several things going for it which made reading the book a pleasurable experience...

For one, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” never takes itself too seriously. Instead, Ari Marmell understands that his book is teeming with fantasy tropes and uses every opportunity to poke fun at the aforementioned tropes or to turn them on their head like Corvis Rebaine who is depicted as a villain in the prologue, only to be revealed as the novel’s hero. On top of that, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is one of the more humorous fantasy novels you’ll find thanks to the incessant banter of the characters:

/You tell him, you raging font of fury, you!/
“How many times do I have to order you to shut up, Khanda?”
/At least one more, obviously./

The only problem I had with the humor is that it can be overly lighthearted, especially when compared to how graphic some of the book’s violence can get. After all, I find it a bit disorienting when the author doesn’t use words like ‘shit’ or ‘bastard’, but has no problem with exploding bodies...

Secondly, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is a well-written novel. Characters may lack depth, but are extremely likable; prose is crisp; the pacing is terrific; the story is well-executed apart from a couple of missteps; and the author strikes a nice balance of humor, action and epic fantasy. Of course, this isn’t too surprising since Ari Marmell already has extensive experience as a writer, but for his first completely original novel, I thought Ari nailed it on the head writing-wise.

Thirdly, I loved the interludes that precede every chapter except for the first one. Primarily in the form of flashbacks, these short interludes—usually 1-3 pages long—not only provide insight into the book’s many different characters (Corvis, Tyannon, Davro, Seilloah, Valescienn, Audriss, Jassion, Duke Lorum, Nathaniel Espa, Rheah Vhoune), their relationships with one another, and the motivations behind their actions, but they also offer a refreshing break from the main narrative, and I eagerly looked forward to reading each new interlude.

Finally, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is just a lot of fun to read. Part of it’s because of the lighthearted humor, the likeable characters, and the engrossing action, but it also has to do with the novel’s accessibility. Basically, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is the kind of novel that is easy to pick up and get started, and even easier to get lost in. Plus, the book has the potential to appeal to a wide range of different readers, including fans of Dungeons & Dragons-type fantasy, humorous fantasy, and fantasy with a twist. Best of all, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is self-contained. Sure, there’s supposed to be a sequel next year, but “The Conqueror’s Shadow” possesses a definite beginning, middle, and end, and leaves the reader completely satisfied. Which is refreshing in this day and age when the fantasy book market is dominated by multi-volume epics and cliffhanger endings...

Negatively, I already mentioned the characters lacking depth and the couple of missteps with the story’s execution, but there are also issues with a plot that requires little brainpower to follow, world-building that is practically nonexistent, and undeveloped themes. Fortunately, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” gets away with such shortcomings because of the type of book it is. Too much world-building, characterization or in-depth thematic discussions, and the novel's level of enjoyment would probably have lessened.

CONCLUSION: In the end, Ari Marmell’sThe Conqueror’s Shadow” was a major surprise. After all, based on the comparison to David Eddings—an author I’ve outgrown; the talk of humor, which I only like in moderation, especially in fantasy; and the author’s background in shared worlds—a genre that I admit holds little appeal to me; I wasn’t sure I would enjoy reading “The Conqueror’s Shadow”. But I did. Very much. In fact, “The Conqueror’s Shadow” is one of the most enjoyable fantasy books that I’ve read in a long time, and I sincerely hope Ari Marmell serves up more of the same in his next novel...


Antonis M. said...

Thanks for the review. This sounds like a book I would really like to read. Lately I've been reading only less-traditional and/or grittier fantasy that was mostly harder to get the pages turning and this one should be a refreshing break. I suppose that as long as one understands the book's limitations and takes it for what it is, then that reader should be able to enjoy such a blend of traditional fantasy.

Robert said...

No problem Antonis :) I'm glad the book sounds like something you might enjoy and that you're willing to give it a try in spite of the novel's shortcomings and fantasy conventions. I think you might be pleasantly surprised :)

Jeff C said...

Hmmm..I might have to pick this one up afterall.

Robert said...

I would definitely give it a shot Jeff. You should know by the first few chapters whether or not the book is for you...

Arrgh said...

I've just outgrown your reviews.

Robert said...

Sorry to hear that Arrgh. That's the beauty of the Internet though. Plenty of other reviewers out there to check out :D

Anonymous said...

Just convinced me to pick this up!


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