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Book Review: Shadow

By (February 26, 2015) No Comment

Shadow (The Pendulum Trilogy)shadow cover

by Will Elliott

Tor, 2015

Pilgrims, the first volume in Will Elliott’s smart and very involving Pendulum Trilogy, kicked off the adventures of two normal human beings from our normal mundane world, London layabout Eric Albright and his homeless alcoholic friend Stuart Casey, who seized the opportunity to pass through a scuffed red doorway under a bridge – a doorway leading, as any reader of fantasy novels could guess a mile off, to an elaborately-imagined alternate reality. That new world, Levaal, is stocked with the usual phyla of supernatural creatures, from dragons to stone giants to winged beings of indeterminate motives to mystic mages of great power, but it’s also crucially vulnerable to what travelers from other worlds – Pilgrims – bring to it.

Enormous disruptions accompanied Eric and Case’s explorations of Levaal in Pilgrims, and just as the new world was changed by its clueless, bumbling visitors, so too the visitors themselves were changed – particularly Eric, whose inner powers as a Pilgrim blossomed in this new world. This is a standard element in the real-world-human-ends-up-in-Barsoom template of this type of books, but although a fair number of the best mainstream fantasy novels of the last two years have made use of that familiar template, none has done so as intelligently or as mordantly as these Pendulum books. And the process takes its toll, a factor more evident in this sequel than in the original novel. Eric’s newfound powers, for instance, include being able to intuit the rumbling pseudo-language of the stone giants, but the ability comes with its own sense of building dread:

That Eric understood the great creatures’ speech, via the peculiar gift all Pilgrims shared when crossing into Levaal, did not thrill him as it might have before. Something had changed inside him but he couldn’t tell what, nor what had provoked the change. He was exhausted and numb, but filled with a sense of riding the crest of an enormous, fast-moving wave, which was rising, rising over the land and would do so for a good while yet, till it reached heights he could barely fathom and then crashed down, drowning him and everyone else.

That sense of dread is embodied in Shadow most effectively by the character actually named Shadow, a curiously compelling fictional creation that clearly magnetized Elliott’s attention during the writing of the book. Shadow is a skillful and apparently amoral killer, but he also evinces a sense of largely untainted wonder, and the mystery of his connection to Eric is very skillfully played as the plot heats up.

The whole book is skillfully done. Elliott uses stock concepts but not one single stock character; he excels in investing every player with very satisfying complexity, and at drawing his readers into that complexity with clear and graceful prose, so that even the humdrum moment of a shape-shifter galloping along in lupine form is as sharp as a deep breath:

Other than rescuing errant Pilgrims from war mages and other perils, what a relief it had been to switch off his human mind and just run, a thousand scents spicing the cold air, rare people gaping or cowering when he paused them, a thunderous growl from his throat for show, give them some tales to tell. (Wolves and dogs knew humour too!) Most of the gawkers had probably never seen a real shape-shifter, wouldn’t know there was a mage within the huge hulking white frame, the savage red mouth packed with white knives, tongue lolling and flapping, steam puffing from its breath into the morning air as though an engine in its chest chugged it along … Ah, these fields were fine to run through, country not recently trampled by the feet of people making war. The air was clean and laced with stable magic.

It’s tricky – almost impossible, in some cases – to discuss the plot of the second book in a series without giving away some of the very pleasant revelations of the first book in the series, and although Elliott does a very conscientious job of making sure Shadow stands as much on its own two feet as possible, this is still very much a middle book. But although it might be perilous to review responsibly, no such restraints apply to readers! No fan of well-done fantasy fiction should be missing this series; Shadow is handily stronger than Pilgrims was, and the third volume is something that can be anticipated with legitimate excitement.