Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk

Assassins in fantasy are a pretty hot thing – not quite to the same level as ‘gritty’, but still quite popular. Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) fits squarely into this assassin fantasy fad and should please many SFF fans. Sprunk’s assassins do indeed kick ass, are dark, tough and conflicted, making Shadow’s Son perhaps the closest thing fantasy gets to the perfect ‘beach book’.

From the first line:

A killer stalks in the shadows
the direction of Shadow’s Son is set. Caim is an assassin, and not (quite) the sympathetic, reluctant assassin so often seen. Caim is good at what he does, well paid and enjoys his work, though not in the psychotic way of serial killer. A seemingly simple job goes bad and Caim finds himself thrust into uncharted territory. The daughter of his last target holds the key to the mystery and Caim must confront his own past to survive.

Shadow’s Son has many things going for it, but for me the greatest is probably its length, or more related to what is typical of SFF books, its lack of length. The Pyr version comes in at a mere 280 pages, and the pace reflects this. Sprunk doesn’t waste words; he gets to the point, throws the reader lots of action, and in doing so doesn’t sacrifice characterization or description. In this he doesn’t read like the debut author that he is. In fact there are occasional flashes of really brilliant writing that leave me highly anticipating more of his work.

As I indicated above, Sprunk does his characters well. Caim comes across as a cold-hearted killer, yet not so cold-hearted that the reader doesn’t immediately find himself rooting for him. Sure he is a killer, but there’s the sense that the people he’s hired to kill, aristocracy in an oppressive culture, deserve what they get. As the novel moves forward, the walls that Caim have erected slowly crumble. Caim is balanced against the spoiled socialite daughter of his last target, Josephine. At first Josephine is nothing special, but just as with Caim, it’s interesting to see her develop a backbone and become at least a tolerable maiden in distress.

Of course it’s Josephine that brings me to my biggest criticism of Shadow’s Son – rape. Rape is a controversial character development tool often used in fiction. Some view it as insensitive, others lazy, and still more may delve into a nice lecture on the feminist perspective of rape. The world is brutal and imagined worlds are often set up to be no less brutal. Rape is both a historical and present reality, and perhaps something not out of place in a book about a patriarchal, medieval society focusing on the underworld of assassins. But rape as it is used in Shadow’s Son has very little relevance to character development, and as such, I think it feels out of place and unnecessary. The only way I imagine giving Sprunk a pass on this one is if we get a pregnancy out of it that has some plot relevance in future books of this planned trilogy. In that case, we should discuss Sprunk’s embracing of fantasy tropes.

In Shadow’s Son, Sprunk neither shies away from nor subverts tropes common to this flavor of fantasy. We have the faux-European medieval setting. We have the classic antihero – a sympathetic killer with a brutal and special past. We have the maiden in distress. We have secret societies, corrupt religious powers, and a hidden heir to an empire. Now I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: tropes are tropes for a reason. They are universal in both history and current society and they often seem to touch people at a deeper level. When done badly, a book can quickly unravel. But when done well the reading can be outstanding. Sprunk does them well – his tropes are wrapped up in impressive writing and a breathtaking pace. Things may be predictable, but it doesn’t really matter.

Shadow’s Son is Sprunk’s debut novel and the first in the planned trilogy of the Shadow Saga. It’s a fun, fast read in the fashion of dark fantasy that’s so popular these days and Sprunk wisely does not try to cram it fuller than needed. It stands well enough on its own for people to try out without fear of needing to read forthcoming sequels, but the ending leaves many questions unanswered and a sense of anticipation for the books to come. All in all it’s just the distraction I was looking for amid some of the heavier reading I’ve done of late, and book that I can see pleasing a lot of readers. 7.5/10

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