I’ve got to say, this is the first time I’ve encountered an epic fantasy novella. And when this book opened with a tense and thrilling fight scene I could tell I was in for a wild ride. THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is only 143 pages long, but within that small wordcount Deck Matthews delivers a fast-paced story with lively, solid world building and a wonderful cast of characters that has the vibe of a classic fantasy while still feeling very fresh.
We’re thrown right into the thick of things here, no messing about. Thrust into the perspective of an unnamed drifter carrying an item of great power, a mysterious man tracked and hunted along the Blasted Coast by a malevolent creature intent on his demise. This is the only opportunity we get to see the world from the drifter’s perspective and this opening chapter works as a kind of mini prologue, introducing us to the world of Relen-Kar and setting the tone and pace for the rest of the book. It works very well, because the pace of this book never lets up.
In a whirlwind of plot development and character arcs we’re introduced to Caleb, a rigger on a docked sky ship on the Blasted Coast; Avendor Tarcoth, a senior military officer stationed in the capital city of Taralius; and Tiberius Alaran, a sage and scholar who also lives in the capital. Caleb’s story centres on his choice to help the drifter (who we do learn more about but I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers) in his flight from the creature which is hunting him and refuses to die. Along the way we learn more about the drifter’s identity, the magic he wields and how Caleb chooses to respond when he’s swiftly sucked up in this maelstrom of chaos. There’s very much the classic fantasy farm boy vibe to Caleb and I get the sense that he’s gonna end up doing some wild, crazy and powerful things later in the series and his arc in this first book felt a lot like his origin story. It was kind of cool actually, cos at this point in the series he really isn’t a major player; in fact, everyone around him, from ‘The Drifter’, to Palawen Ty and Tanner, they’re the powerful seasoned mages, warriors and veteran adventurers, while Caleb is doing what he can with very little experience and power beyond his own resilience and bravery. Just shows how powerful that combination can be.
Avendor Tarcoth’s storyline was my fave to follow along with though (probably because I love a good mystery) and we’ve got a doozy of a murder mystery on our hands here. Thrust right into the thick of things again (I did say this book’s pace is relentless) our first scene with Avendor drops us into his gruesome discovery of the corpse of a murdered apothecary and a strange mound of something resembling human flesh. Matthews’ writing in this scene is superb, delivering up the sights and smells and atmosphere of the investigation in full technicolour detail and dropping lovely tidbits of worldbuilding throughout, all while succinctly introducing us to Avendor and the cast of characters surrounding him. The cast of side characters is surprisingly extensive for a novella and for the most part are very well done. Shevik Den, a sky pirate and Caleb’s associate being one of the most notable. Some are a bit tropey and slight caricatures, such as Kharl, Caleb’s bully and tormentor, but that didn’t take enough away from the book to make it any less enjoyable.
I’ve gotta say though, I think Matthews truly excels in his writing of Tiberius. Tiberius is a blind sage whose scenes are written without reference to visual stimuli. Smells, sounds and other sensory perception are used to great effect and actually visibly improves the writing of the book even in scenes where Tiberius isn’t present. When it comes to a satisfying reading experience a lot of it comes undeniably from being able to visualise the scenes in my head, but for a world to feel truly fully-realised, three dimensional and real, I think it’s necessary to get a sense of what it would feel like to stand in its buildings and streets, and that demands a more rounded, multi-sensory approach. What are the scents, aromas and odours you’d smell when walking through the streets of Taralius? What would it sound like to stand in the wake of a skyship taking off into the night sky of Stormholt? I really got a great sense of this and I think it’s the mark of a great fantasy book that, despite its fantastical and wholly fictional settings, can make you feel grounded and present in its world.
There’s a ton of worldbuilding crammed into the small word count of this novella too and I definitely feel I got a crash course in the history and magic of The Realm of Relen-Kar without ever feeling like it was forced down my throat. I am writing this review a few weeks after finishing the book though, and one thing I will say is I don’t really remember many of the historical figures, city names and magical vocabulary. Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast when writing epic fantasy novellas. It definitely worked in the moment, is very enjoyable and it is written into the story incredibly well, I just find that there’s so much thrown at the reader in such a short word count I’d definitely need a refresher before I start the next book.
All told THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is such a refreshing take on the epic fantasy genre and shows how innovative self-published books can be; I can’t imagine a traditional publisher would be willing to take the risk on short, episodic epic fantasy novellas in a genre so dominated by the doorstopper tomes of Sanderson et al. Great characters, rip-roaringly fast paced, interesting magic system and still so much more potential to be unleashed in future instalments. This is a great book and I’m looking forward to delving further into The Riven Realm.
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