Book Review: The Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington

shadow what was lostFormat:  Hard cover, 1st Edition, 2016

Pages:  693

Reading Time: about 17.25 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Young students of magic Davian and Wirr, despite being limited by rules and prejudice, investigate the potential of failing of a magical barrier while traveling with two accused murderers who are more than they seem, while they and their friend Asha try to prevent an invasion that threatens the entire kingdom.

 

I’m not sure what first attracted me to The Shadow of What Was Lost…I may have seen a review on another site, or Amazon might have suggested it based on my reading habits. I do remember being struck by the beautiful simplicity of the cover, and then intrigued by the comparisons to the Wheel of Time series. However, still I hesitated, afraid that The Shadow of What Was Lost was a pale imitation of Robert Jordan’s series (that itself suffered from serious flaws). So was my apprehension warranted? Read on to find out, and I promise to call out spoilers ahead of time. But first, let’s take a look at some other opinions:

 

Mark Yon of SFFWorld states: “I must admit I found this first part wasn’t inspiring to begin with. It’s an attempt to be filmic that doesn’t entirely work for me, has dialogue that screams “cliché!” and a lot of information-dumping to set up the plot. However if you can accept that this is a debut novel and a big novel, it is worth sticking with…There are parts that I liked, especially once past the beginning. Once it settles down and the main plot gets going, there’s lots of running and being hunted, which was quite exciting, and there’s even a couple of nearly-unexpected twists along the way (as well as a couple that were blindingly obvious.)…It is clearly a character driven tale. The dialogue between the characters is generally good, though there’s the occasional clunk of dialogue info-dumping. It is perhaps to be expected with a debut novel of this size, though, and not too jarring for the reader. What keeps you reading are the characters – their wishes, worries, beliefs, loves and back-stories, all of which flesh out the plot and the world as we go…Perhaps my biggest concern is that despite Shadow being such a big book there’s a lot happening without a great deal of explanation. Characters do things without being given a real need or understanding of why they must do these things. Though, as readers, we are told that things are important, there’s little said about why they must do things, and so our engagement with things, our concern for the characters, is less. The mysterious and enigmatic enemy has a presence but it never seems as if our heroes are in genuine peril. The deaths of characters mean surprisingly little as there has been little given to make us care about them. In the end it feels like a book with epic width but little depth.

Robert H. Bedford at Tor.com says: “Islington devotes a great deal of the novel to providing background information about his characters and the depth of history of his world. The connections between the characters and that deep history is revealed over the novel’s nearly 700 pages giving a great deal of detail to them. Each of the primary characters possesses a mystery or secret about them, they aren’t exactly what they seem. Adding to the “secret mystery” is that most of these primary characters have very thin memories of themselves, only going back to just before the novel began…Having read many epic fantasy novels and series, “hints of things to come” in later volumes is to be expected and probably part of why longer series are popular. However, the balance between those hints of something substantive being revealed in later volumes and revealing information in the immediacy of the current volume was uneven. The character’s journeys also suffered from a sense hollowness. They were told to go places, but the destination wasn’t always clear and the reason for their journey wasn’t always clear. It felt like the story knew it needed to arrive at certain points and was determined to get there despite itself, in the same way a parent says “Because I said so,” with no other reason…Unfortunately, too much of the nearly 700 pages of The Shadow of What Was Lost was world-building and showing what the characters were rather than getting to know who the characters were. While the characters had a great deal of historical depth, their emotive depth was not on an equal footing…When a novel is boldly compared by readers to The Wheel of Time, the expectations are clearly high. Those high expectations are also unfair, too. That may be the case for The Shadow of What Was Lost. Although I was able to take that comparison with a large grain of salt, Islington did manage to impress me with the historical scope of his world. He has a knack of sorts for world-building and injecting smaller stretches of narrative with tension and immersion. In the end, The Shadow of What Was Lost offers a great deal of promise, but is ultimately very uneven which is typical of a debut novel. There were sparks of enthralling storytelling sprinkled throughout the novel, but if the whole of the novel could match the immersive, narrative pull of the conclusion, the novel would have been much stronger overall.

Fabiloa of The Nerd Daily opines: “Not only does it have an inspiring plot, but it is also well executed in terms of delivery. Do not be fooled by the beginning of the story, which might seem pretty straight forward; the plot is surprising with fast-paced narration and many twists and turns, credible ones too, which can leave a reader breathless. It is most definitely an action-packed story featuring compelling characters with a whole world to discover; and a world to save…There are several aspects of the book that are outstanding. First and foremost, the magic system. Actually, the magic systems; yes, plural!…Quite frankly, the book does a great job in describing who the Shadows are and how poorly they are treated and what they can really do. Their story, thanks to Asha, becomes almost addictive. For instance, it becomes apparent that the Shadows are not willing to be simply mistreated as they are tired of being the invisible ones and they are ready to do something about that. Scheming, politics, the hidden (or not so hidden) agendas of all the parties involved in this story, from the ruling family of Andarra, to the Gifted, to the Shadows—everyone has a goal and no-one is ready for the war that the Blind bring to the capital…The story also explores in some detail various family relationships and, in particular, a father-son relationship that flourishes throughout the narration of Wirr’s storyline. This is a relationship that helps Wirr transform from a reluctant hero to an involved and inspired member of the royal family, understanding what is at stake and become willing to do his part. It is not revolutionary in the genre, yet the character is passionate and sincere in his motives. Yet, the main driver for his change, his father, might not be as enlightened as Wirr thinks he is. Which leaves space for a great character development (or the opposite?) for Wirr; or will James Islington plot another twist that readers will not see coming?

Finally, Richard Bray at Fantasy Faction concludes: “What makes Islington’s debut so exciting in this, the first book in the Licanius Trilogy, is his storytelling ability. While the general setup is familiar as your own handwriting – a young man discovers he has mysterious powers and must go on the run so he can learn how to master those powers and help his friends defeat the mysterious and terrifying army swarming down upon them – Islington executes the story well with likeable characters, strong pacing and a touch of humor. It’s clearly modeled after Jordan and Rothfuss and Sanderson, but it’s done well enough that it’s more a celebration of those previous authors and stories than a forgery, and Islington’s world-building adds some interesting touches that could allow the sequels to expand into uncharted territory…Davian is a likeable, intelligent protagonist, and his friends Wirr and Asha are equally compelling. Asha is an especial delight, as Islington avoids the struggles with female protagonists that plagued much of The Wheel of Time…They seem like characters who haven’t reached their full potential yet, but over the course of the novel we see them develop toward the cusp of adulthood and responsibility (this too was an issue The Wheel of Time struggled with at times). Islington supplements Davian’s story with Caeden, a young man who woke up in the middle of the woods with no recollection of who he is – or whether he is guilty of the mass murder he’s accused of. Caeden’s struggle to discover who he is makes him one of the most interesting pieces to the story, and differentiates the book from merely being a copy of the most common fantasy tropes available. Caeden’s discovery of who he is and how he came to be in his current predicament is surprisingly powerful…The Shadow of What Was Lost feels like a relatively light read – the paperback is 602 pages, but they fly by quickly. There are some moments of graphic violence, but for the most part, it is again in line with The Wheel of Time and its other inspirations.

 

After reading the first two reviews, you could forgive me for being apprehensive about diving into a trope-ridden story. Coming-of-age and kids in a magic school…who needs more of that?! Fortunately the magic school portion of the story ends fairly quickly, with the kids headed out to face danger and accomplish great things after only a few chapters. I won’t recap the plot here; I recommend going to Islington’s website and reading it there. Also make sure you check out the handy Extras feature he has on the site; even though the book itself contains a map (thank you Mr. Islington!), a hi res full color version appears on his site, as well as a glossary that includes pronunciation.

Islington presents his story from multiple viewpoints. The three main youngsters – Davian, Wirr and Asha – are likable and easy to root for. Davian and Asha go through quite a bit of change as the story progresses. Davian is impulsive and tends to do the opposite of what he is instructed to do, often with serious consequences. It is a great character flaw that makes him more believable. His change by the end of the story comes in the form of a more serious and less easy-going personality. Asha begins the story as an innocent girl but by the end has developed into an intelligent, determined, and loyal young woman and is a delight to read. Wirr, on the other hand, doesn’t really change much by the end of the story, and is the least compelling character so far. A few other important viewpoints are explored, such as Caeden and Taeris Sarr, as well as those of a couple of other minor characters. During parts of the story, several of the characters experience loss. I appreciate that while there is loss and grieving, Islington doesn’t devote pages and pages to emo-like grief, choosing instead to mention it and it’s impact and move on, without burying the reader and keeping the story’s pace from bogging down. It is a decision I wholeheartedly approve of.

In my opinion, the best thing about Islington’s story is not his characters, nor is it the plot or the adventure; rather, it’s his worldbuilding that I find stands out. From the early advanced race (the Builders) through thousands of years of history, full of magic and different cultures, wars and near-immortals, items of power, strange creatures, and fairy tales – Islington’s world is deep and imaginative. However, throughout the book we only get small glimpses into those past times. Some of those ancient people, creatures, and artifacts are “awakening”, for lack of a better term, and a magical barrier is failing, both of which explain why those magical beings and items are found in the time of that the story is set in. I would have liked to have seen more of that worldbuilding…right now it falls a bit short of Jordan or Alec Hutson, simply because Islington is holding back in order to set the stage and develop his characters…but I know it’s there and I’m hoping that he reveals more of it in the next book.

The best way for an author to reveal his world is to have his characters go on a quest. That is essentially the plot of the book – Davian and Wirr go on a quest that allows Islington to present different aspects of his world. There is an interesting portion around the middle of the book where Davian experiences time traveling. Some say the book lags here as Davian learns to explore his hitherto undiscovered abilities. I though it was intriguing, and there are a couple of instances in the book where Davian has traveled back from the future and to make an appearance in the present. This was absolutely fascinating to me, and shows that Islington has enough of the plot mapped out to where future events (that he hasn’t even written yet) are making themselves known now.

I understand the criticisms by other reviewers that said it seemed as the characters were told to go to places and do things, but the reason wasn’t quite clear. Yet it wasn’t as much of a problem for me. Maybe there are subtle hints provided by Islington that I picked up on, or perhaps I was just following along blindly as the characters were claimed to have been doing. Initially Davian, Witt and Asha follow the instructions they are given because they really have no choice. As they learn more, however, and opportunities are presented, they very clearly make their own decisions. Asha’s story in particular involved a lot of courage and determination, and she certainly blazed her own trail regardless of what she was told to do. In fact, her story involving the Shadows – those people who had their magic stripped away – is incredibly compelling and the best part of the book.

Caeden’s character gets a nice, twisty reveal that makes you wonder what is truly good and evil in this story…is it the king and his brother, who have repressed magic out of fear? Is it the magic council, that wants nothing more than to rule again over those that have no magic? Is it the Shadows, who have their own agenda that involves the slaughter of innocents if necessary? Is it Aarkein Davaed, who may or may not be good depending on his ultimate goal? Is it the fallen king in the fairy tale that Davian discovers, who may or may not be Aarkein Davaed? Or is it something we haven’t seen yet? There’s a lot of gray area and not enough information to know which way to turn yet…and that’s a good thing. And speaking of twists and turns, there are a couple of them that I didn’t see coming. One involves Caeden as mentioned above; another involves Wirr and his father; and yet another involves Taeris Sarr. Islington has put a lot of work into keeping secrets until he is ready to reveal them, and still there are more that remain unanswered for now.

In conclusion, it is easy to see where the comparisons to the Wheel of Time come from. The Shadow of What Was Lost is very much a homage to that work, yet manages to establish its own identity. Where my concern lies is in the book’s length…will 3 volumes be enough for Islington to be able to tell his story from start to finish? The Wheel of Time series spans 14 door-stopping books…granted, much of that is due to Jordan’s ridiculous sprawl, but still…the point is, can The Licanius Trilogy contain everything we want to know in only two more volumes? It seems unlikely. Still, I’m hoping that it does, because I loved every minute of The Shadow of What Was Lost. The pages flew by, I didn’t want to set it down and couldn’t wait to get back to it when I did – and ultimately that is the true mark of a great story. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, An Echo of Things to Come, with great anticipation.

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