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Friday, April 8, 2011

“The River of Shadows” by Robert V.S. Redick (Reviewed by Robert Thompson & Liviu Suciu)

Order “The River of ShadowsHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “The Red Wolf Conspiracy
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “The Rats and the Ruling Sea

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Robert V.S. Redick is a writer of fantasy, mainstream fiction, creative nonfiction and criticism. Works include the unpublished Conquistadors, a finalist for the 2002 AWP/Thomas Dunne Novel Award; the memoir Uncrossed River, winner of the 2005 New Millennium Writings Award for nonfiction; “Palpable,” a finalist for the 2003 Glimmer Train Short Story Award; and The Chathrand Voyage epic fantasy series.

PLOT SUMMARY: The crew of the vast, ancient ship Chathrand have reached the shores of the legendary southern empire of Bali Adro. Many have died in the crossing, and the alliance of rebels, led by the tarboy Pazel Pathkendle and the admiral’s daughter Thasha Isiq, has faced death, betrayal, and darkest magic. But nothing has prepared them for the radically altered face of humanity in the South.

They have little time to recover from the shock, however. For with landfall, the battle between the rebels and centuries-old sorcerer Arunis enters its final phase. At stake is control of the Nilstone, a cursed relic that promises unlimited power to whoever unlocks the secrets of its use—but death to those who fail. And no one is closer to mastering the Stone than Arunis.

Desperate to stop him, Pazel and Thasha must join forces with their enemies, including the depraved Captain Rose and the imperial assassin Sandor Ott. But when a suspicious young crewmember turns his attentions to Thasha, it is the young lovers themselves who are divided—most conveniently for Arunis. As the mage’s triumph draws near, the allies face a terrible choice: break their oaths and run for safety, or hunt the world’s most dangerous sorcerer through a strange and deadly land...

CLASSIFICATION: The Chathrand Voyage series is a mix of modern and classic PG-13 epic fantasy marketed for fans of George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and Scott Lynch. The series has also drawn comparisons to C.S. Lewis and Charles Dickens. Personally, the series reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean if it was set in a fantasy world created by Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy large-scale, exciting and full of magic, intrigue and adventure...

FORMAT/INFO: The River of Shadows is 592 pages long divided over thirty-two titled chapters. Narration is in the third-person, mainly via the protagonists Pazel Pathkendle and Thasha Isiq. Minor viewpoints include Arunis, Neda Ygraël, Neeps, Felthrup, Thasa’s father Eberzam, Mr. Fiffengurt, Myett, Greysan Fulbreech, Ensyl, Counselor Vadu, Sander Ott, and Lord Taliktrum. The River of Shadows is the third volume in The Chathrand Voyage series after The Red Wolf Conspiracy and The Rats and the Ruling Sea, which will be concluded in The Night of the Swarm. It’s highly recommended that readers finish the first two books before attempting The River of Shadows.

April 19, 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of The River of Shadows via Del Rey. The UK version (see below) will be published in both Hardcover & Trade Paperback via Gollancz on April 21, 2011. UK cover art is provided by Edward Miller.

ROBERT’S ANALYSIS: In just a few years, Robert V.S. Redick has developed into one of the most exciting young voices in fantasy today. While The Red Wolf Conspiracy was a massively hyped debut that did not live up to expectations, the author showcased remarkable improvement in The Rats and the Ruling Sea—UK title—resulting in one of the best fantasy novels of 2009. Now in the third volume in The Chathrand Voyage, Robert V.S. Redick continues to make strides as a writer, while delivering another first-rate fantasy novel in The River of Shadows...

Originally planned as a trilogy, The Chathrand Voyage has evolved into a quartet with The River of Shadows the third volume in the series after The Red Wolf Conspiracy and The Rats and the Ruling Sea. A direct continuation from the end of The Rats and the Ruling SeaMINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!The River of Shadows starts off with the Chathrand and its crew safely across the Ruling Sea, but far from danger. Not only is the Great Ship facing food & water shortages, ixchel command, and possibly mutiny in a strange land ravaged by war and a plague that has turned all humans into tol-chenni—mindless creatures—but Arunis also remains on the prowl.

From here, exciting blockbuster action; sweeping adventure; intriguing subplots—dlömu/ixchel politics, Eberzam Isiq’s imprisonment, time-skips, the River of Shadows—unlikely alliances; and startling revelations involving Pazel’s mother and Thasa’s connection to Erithusmé take readers on a massively entertaining roller coaster ride that culminates with a final epic confrontation between Arunis and those sworn to the sorcerer’s opposition. Through all of this, Robert V.S. Redick’s engaging narrative is aided by frequent viewpoint shifts between characters major, minor, good and evil as well as informative/amusing footnotes & notes to the reader from the Editor, a journal entry from the quartermaster Mr. Fiffengurt, and one of Captain Rose’s letters, while the story’s undeniable charm and excitement factor is further enhanced by deft storytelling and witty prose:

My purpose here is simply a warning. If you are part of that infinitesimally small (and ever smaller) band of dissidents with the wealth, time and inclination to set your hands on the printed word, I suggest you consider the arguments against the current volume. To wit: the tale is morbid, the persons depicted are clumsy when they are not evil, the world is inconvenient to visit and quite changed from what is here described, the plot at this early juncture is already complex beyond all reason, the moral cannot be stated, and the editor is intrusive.

The one complaint I have with the story is that certain parts were easy to unravel or predict like Greysan Fulbreech’s deception and the climactic battle with Arunis which involved the Nilstone and the Swarm of Night, but because The River of Shadows is so much fun to read and narrated in such entertaining fashion, it’s a minor issue.

Characterization is a somewhat bigger issue, and easily the novel’s weakest link. While Pazel, Thasa and the rest of their motley bunch—which includes heroes, villains, and those who fall somewhere in between—remain charming with interesting personalities and backgrounds, their sheer numbers have forced character development in The River of Shadows to a standstill. To make matters worse, the spotlight is far too small to properly accommodate everyone in the series. This is not so much a problem with Pazel and Thasa since they are prominently featured in The River of Shadows—as it should be—but some of the more intriguing characters introduced over the course of the series like Felthrup, Hercól Stanapeth, Neda Ygraël, Arunis, Thasa’s father Eberzam, Dr. Ignus Chadfallow, Sander Ott, Captain Rose and Lord Taliktrum only receive brief moments in the spotlight before disappearing back into the background, while new faces (Ibjen, Prince Olik, Counselor Vadu) struggle to make an impact. Honestly though, these issues with the characterization did little to dampen my enjoyment of the book. With such a huge cast of characters, one can only expect so much character development to begin with, while the brief moments I did get to spend with Hercól, Felthrup, Sander Ott, Captain Rose, etc., was time well spent.

World-building meanwhile, is less of a factor in The River of Shadows, especially compared to the first two books in the series, but what ideas Redick does introduce are once again creative and fascinating. Highlights include the immensely strange Infernal Forest; the city of Masalym with its unique docking system; Vasparhaven, a Spider Tellers temple; learning about the creation of The Merchant’s Polylex and Bali Adro’s Infinite Conquest; dlömic culture, superstitions and prejudice; the Orfuin Club; and the River of Shadows—“a tunnel between worlds, the channel cut by the wild pulse of life through a hostile universe, the thought that flees on waking, the pure stuff from which souls are distilled.”

In the end, even with characterization flaws and issues with the story, The River of Shadows is another outstanding work of fantasy from Robert V.S. Redick, ranking right up there with The Rats and the Ruling Sea in terms of pure fun & entertainment the book brings to the table, while surpassing its predecessor because of improved writing and the rewarding answers provided. Not to mention setting the stage for what should be an explosive and much anticipated finale to The Chathrand Voyage saga in The Night of the Swarm...

LIVIU'S ANALYSIS: Since I missed the opportunity to talk here about the first two Chathrand Voyage novels, let me summarize my impressions: The Red Wolf Conspiracy was one of my top 20 novels of 2008. It opened one of two series debuting in that year that I felt had the highest chance to reach my top-top level based on content and writing style that combined exuberance, inventiveness, sense of wonder and an all around infectious excitement - correctly as it turned out since the other series was Shadows of the Apt which right now is my #1 ongoing fantasy series with The Chathrand Voyages hot on its trail so to speak...

In 2009 The Rats and The Ruling Sea fulfilled the promise of the author's debut in spades and was my number 1 fantasy novel of the year and 2 sff overall, while the series vaulted in the top-top category. The Rats and the Ruling Sea continued the adventures of our cast with panache and it was one of those few novels that I really regretted that it ended, while I could have happily read another 500 pages; not to speak of the superb twist ending which left me stunned and realizing that the storyline of the series is even twistier than I thought.

So the highest possible expectations for The River of Shadows and on finishing it, not only they were exceeded but in an extremely strong fantasy year so far and with several upcoming major releases, I still give it reasonable odds to remain my top fantasy of the year since despite being only book three out of a tetralogy, it both explains most of the outstanding mysteries of the series and it completes brilliantly its major thread so far.

Of course there are a lot of loose ends and there are new elements introduced that will clearly be the focus of the final novel, but The Red Wolf Conspiracy, The Rats and the Ruling Sea and The River of Shadows just hang together perfectly and tightly with all the twists and turns you want.

Now after this summary a little detail on why I feel so strongly about this novel; first let's start with the title:

"The River is the dark essence of thought, for thought, more than anything else in the universe, has the power to leap between worlds. It belongs therefore to all worlds where conscious life exists. And yet strangely enough, consciousness tends to blind us to its presence. I have even heard it said that the more a world's inhabitants unlock the secret workings of the universe - its pulleys and gears - the deeper the River of Shadows sinks beneath the earth. Societies of master technicians, those who trap the energy of suns, and grow their food in laboratories, and build machines that carry them on plumes of fire through the void: they cannot find the River at all."

Already in the above short paragraph you can see the scope of the novel and the series - while clearly epic fantasy in tropes and action, its ambition is very sf-nal in a Multiverse-way and in this book we get to experience if not the full reality of this, its echoes as reflected in the world of our heroes.

The novel is exuberant and brims with "life", so while things get quite dark on occasion for our cast and with The Night of the Swarm coming soon to boot, reading The River of Shadows is a very "life affirming" experience that uplifts one's spirit while being very entertaining in the process.

Robert talked above about some of the many goodies of the novel: "the immensely strange Infernal Forest; the city of Masalym with its unique docking system; Vasparhaven, a Spider Tellers temple; learning about the creation of The Merchant’s Polylex and Bali Adro’s Infinite Conquest..", not to speak of the nature of the Time Storm in the Ruling Sea and those are only a part of the extreme inventiveness of the author, while all of these hang together in a very coherent whole.

And then there are the characters which generally make or break a novel or a series; while the three books so far had a very diverse cast - recounted above by Robert so I will not repeat their names - The River of Shadows is the novel of Thasha and Pazel first and foremost since the two take over the series here and eclipse everyone else and this felt "just right" for me. The two form a great action duo and there is real chemistry between them, while they complement very well too. But there is much more since we learn the secret of Nilus Rose' seeming madness, the true motivations of some of the villains as well as those of quite a few other characters of importance in the series.

Another thing I really liked here is that for once the villains have clear motivations beyond "me, evil and I want to lord over you just to show you how bad I am; if in the process I destroy the world and have no one to rule over just too bad..." that mars so many fantasy series. While Arunis' motivations make for too much of a spoiler to be talked into more detail though they are deeply intertwined with the River of Shadows description above, the lesser villain of the novel is just someone who feels Arunis will prevail and he wants to be on the winning team; that simple, human and a motivation that sadly has been with us forever.

Overall The River of Shadows (A++) is crazily inventive with great characters that you cannot help but root for, superb action, moments of pure joy but also of heartbreak and darkness and the "Hey, it's just me" line so seemingly innocuous is also one of deep meaning that caps the novel in great style. Fantasy at its best and the reason I read and greatly enjoy it...


Greig said...

"Hey, it's just me" was perfect!

shaneo52 said...

I love this book, just about to finish it, I gotta say thanks Liviu, cause of you I picked this up...I remember when this came out I thought no way this is for me...I was so wrong, cant wait for the Night of Swarms

Liviu said...

thank you for the kind words; definitely eager for that too

shaneo52 said...

Yeah I sit and read this and just think yeah, I love this stuff! lol


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