Monday, March 01, 2010

Review: The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell

A few weeks ago I was thinking about some on-line discussion or another and wondering just what sword and sorcery really means and if any of the books I tend to read really fit that definition. Now I’ve come to realize that like porn, I’ll know sword and sorcery when I see it. It was The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) that showed me just what sword and sorcery is – vast armies and battles, witches, warlocks, ogres, gnomes, magical weapons, enchanted armor, and some object of great magical power that opposing forces want really badly. Perhaps it’s not the perfect definition for sword and sorcery and maybe there is often much more (or much less) to it, but it’s just possible that with The Conqueror’s Shadow, Marmell shows us what sword and sorcery should be.

What happens when the evil dark lord who marches seemingly unopposed across the land, reeking havoc and terrorizing the populace, reaches his goal and fails? He doesn’t fail due to the kingdom rallying a great defensive host and it’s not because of some destined hero’s intervention. The failure is just one small oversight. One evil dark lord, Corvis Rebaine, the Terror of the East, takes a hostage and disappears – abandoning his army of man and beast and allowing the kingdom to repair and believe that they actually met and beat the threat. Corvis eventually marries his hostage, settles in an out-of-the-way village, and enjoys being a father to his two children. What threat could possibly bring this past his prime, evil dark lord (who may not be so evil after all) out of retirement?

In many ways the plot of The Conqueror’s Shadow is utterly predictable right from the start. At first it was no bother – the compelling way the story unravels was more than enough to entertain and hold my interest – then things began to be a bit annoying, but I could still shrug it off, and just when I reached the ‘oh please’ moment some nagging doubts appeared. Then the story twists – now I have to say that I still found it fairly predictable, however the twist was enough to satisfy and the overall plot serves its role well.

The Conqueror’s Shadow isn’t a particularly deep book, and it’s not meant to be. The strength of it is in the snarky, harsh, action-packed plot and its colorful characters. However, that isn’t to say that The Conqueror’s Shadow isn’t without depth – it’s just not fully realized. Corvis, the Terror of the East is actually a disenchanted former soldier, a man who saw corruption in government, its inability to actually lead, and that the real power lies in bickering corporations guilds. This bitter young man decides that he could lead much better than those currently in charge – and he is probably right. Unfortunately the only way to achieve this sort of power is to become an evil lord wielding a magical weapon, wearing intimidating armor made of ancient bones, extracting power from an enslaved demon who feeds on the souls of humanity, partnering with a cannibalistic witch, and heading an army full of horrific beasts full of bloodlust. Now take this evil lord, add a loving wife, two children who mean the world to him, a couple of decades to mature and reflect, and then put him back in that place but facing an new evil lord, in so many ways the shadow of himself. Regret and remorse abound, atonement is sought, but he’s still that same man capable of evil, no matter how good his intentions. Just what means are worth the ends? How much sacrifice can actually achieve a greater good? Is the path to hell paved with good intentions? All this is in the background, a stage wonderfully set, but unfortunately never fully utilized. Maybe it’s appropriate because there are no real answers. Maybe asking the questions is enough, but I couldn’t help but want more.

A major short coming of sword and sorcery is the great talent of its protagonists with the sword and sorcery. He (and it’s almost always a he) is too good to be beat, his special weapon unsurpassed, his magic stronger than everyone else’s – and this magic all too often becomes a very convenient crutch to lean on when story needs a way out. The Conqueror’s Shadow walks this fine line and succeeds where so many fail. Corvis is vulnerable, emotionally and physically. Corvis is long past his prime, not particularly skilled in magic (though some of his friends are) and he faces a younger evil lord that is at least his equal. It’s refreshing and works fairly well – but this is still sword and sorcery and Corvis is still that stereotypical badass who may be captured, beaten and tortured, but cannot be defeated.

It’s often wondered just what the implications of our on-line world will be. One such path those sorts of discussions often wanders down is snark. Sarcasm isn’t enough in an on-line world – you must be so blatantly obvious that subtly isn’t acceptable. Thus sarcasm becomes snark. The Conqueror’s Shadow is snarky – nearly every single exchange of dialogue is snarky – heck, the interior dialogue of characters is snarky. Often this sort of humor sours a book, growing old and tedious. The Conqueror’s Shadow manages to maintain some weird not-balance where the relentless snark doesn’t grow old, it stays fresh and fun, adding to the characters in an odd sort of not-gallows humor of hard men (and women) in hard situations. This isn’t the first example of snark infusing fiction and it won’t be the last, but is it a new trend spawned by the denizens of the intranets? Thankfully, that is a question for somewhere other than this review, but I will say again, the snark works for The Conqueror’s Shadow.

The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell is fast and furious and full of snark – sword and sorcery at its best. Marmell cut his teeth in tie-in fiction – an oft maligned branch of the genre world. Authors of tie-in fiction are often accused of only being in it only for the money, or only looking for a way into ‘real’ fiction, but Marmell shows that he was in it simply because it’s what he loves. The Conqueror’s Shadow is welcome step from the tie-in world, bringing snarky excitement and a new voice that I’m anxious to hear more from. And while The Conqueror's Shadow stands fine on its own, there is more to come in the forthcoming sequel, The Warlord's Legacy. 7.5-8/10


RobB said...

Nice review Ken, fair and balanced one might say. As you know, I enjoyed the book too. The snark was balanced fairly well - if it were any more snarky it might be annoying me thinks.

The second book should be interesting.

Neth said...

thanks Rob - yet more evidence that are tastes align far more often than not.

Simcha said...

I've been interested in reading this book though I'm surprised to hear that it's so predictable since from the description it sounds rather unique. But I'm still looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review!


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