BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A top-notch assassin with unusual powers in the city of Othir finds himself unexpectedly drawn into a web of intrigue when his latest job turns out to be a set-up.
PROS: Evocative Post-Empire setting; well-drawn protagonist; strong S&S action.
CONS: Relationship between the protagonist and primary female character feels just a bit artificial.
BOTTOM LINE: A shining beacon of the new crop of Sword and Sorcery novels.
He turned, knees bent with his knife at the ready. From this vantage he could see the wardrobe Kit had mentioned. It was pulled aside, and a black tunnel mouth yawned in the wall beyond. A young man in the duke’s livery with fair hair and a short goatee emerged with a bared arming sword in his hand. Calm pivoted out of the path of the falling sword and thrust his knife into his opponent’s side. The point struck a rib. Calm twisted the blade and punched it through the connective tissue between the bones.
The young man’s last breath wheezed from the wound as he crumpled to the floor.
The duke cringed beside a massive, four-post bed. “Please.” His jowls trembled as he held out his hands before him. An angry welt marred one of his palms. “I’ll give you anything you want.”
“Yes.” Calm crossed the floor. “You will.” The duke died with considerably less effort than his bodyguards. Calm left the body stretched out on the bed with a bloody hole carved into the chest. He hadn’t been able to take out Reinard in front of his dinner guests. His clients would have to be satisfied with butchery. The message was sent.
Caim is an assassin, and a very good assassin, with some advantages over the typical person plying his trade. The shadows respond to him, as living things that he can’t quite manipulate at will, but they do seem to respond to his needs and desires. If that wasn’t enough of an advantage for an assassin, Caim also has had an ally since he was a child called Kit. Kit is an “imaginary” friend only he can see…but with her ability to pass through walls and doors like a ghost, this not so imaginary friend can and does provide invaluable intelligence to an assassin trying to figure out where his target’s guards are, or an escape route when things go wrong. In the corrupt post-fall-of-an-Empire city of Othir, dominated by an equally venal church, Caim makes a pretty good living at his job, but there is plenty of business to go around. Caim is a simple man, with simple wants and needs. But when his latest job turns out to be a setup, and the daughter of his target seems to be a key to the mystery of who framed him and why, Caim discovers he has a lot of growing to do, like it or not. And there is a lot of blood for Caim to spill in the pursuit of that quest, and perhaps Caim might discover some things about himself.
Although he has published a few stories prior to this, Shadow’s Son is Sprunk’s debut novel.
Sprunk hits on all four cylinders and convincingly draws the reader into his secondary fantasy world. Othir and the realm around it feels a lot like a post-Roman Empire Italy in its particulars–a fallen Empire, the remnants of which are now dominated by a church which has taken temporal as well as spiritual power. Even some of the names are vaguely Italianesque–the Nimean Empire, Castle DiVecci, et cetera. At times this felt a little too original, but I admit that such a setting is perfect for Sprunk’s purposes. The city of Othir itself has character, both in the geography and layout and in the evocative way that Sprunk brings it to life–from a dusty tomb, to the palace itself.
The tight focus, the emphasis on the fate of two protagonists, even with larger things in motion, the urban focus firmly place Shadow’s Son in the tradition of Sword and Sorcery.
Caim is the central character of Shadow’s Son, and what a character. No copycat rip off of other S&S protagonists, he, Caim has a mysterious past which only parts of are revealed in the course of the book. He has unusual powers, his mysterious friend Kit, and well honed fighting skills at his disposal. He is no superman, we feel every bruise and wound, and Sprunk never lets us forget that Caim is mortal.
Josey is the other main character, the daughter of his would-be target in his botched/set-up hit. As the novel progresses, we learn she is not all that she appears to be, even to herself. Although not quite as well drawn as Caim, who strides through the novel with full ownership, we are given enough to understand her and her motivations, especially when she eventually turns to her father’s would-be-killer for help.
My only semi-major gripe, and it is relatively small once I decided to go with it, was that I felt some of the aspects of the relationship between Caim and Josey felt a bit forced and mechanical. I far more understood and bought into the relationship between Caim and the not-so-imaginary Kit than I did between Caim and Josey. With the buy-in to that relationship, though, the rest of the novel flows and follows naturally.
Just like any really well down modern fantasy novel, be it epic, secondary world, or sword and sorcery, the villains shine here. We are presented with a hierarchy of villains that, while a relatively simple setup, are distinctly different and provide different challenges to Caim in his encounters with them.
I was mock exasperated at one point, wondering why one of those major antagonists still was alive and kicking after his latest actions to bedevil Caim. Sprunk never makes it easy for Caim or the reader, when the antagonists are dispatched, Caim has gone through a lot, and the effort is rewarded.
Too, Sprunk has read or at least has understood the precepts of Poul Anderson’s essay Of Thud and Blunder. Horses are definitely not race cars in Shadow’s Son and the city feels suitably medieval. Caim does not go around swinging a 20 pound zweihander in the pursuit of his craft. As I mentioned before, despite his unusual abilities, Caim is not a superman, and his opposition is as well. Sure, some of the hordes of lesser opponents are “mooks”, but that is a feature, not a bug, of Sword and Sorcery novels.
And, lastly, any good Sword and Sorcery story worth its salt has strong writing In it’s action scenes. Not the clash of armies, but up-close and personal combat between the hero and his foes. Shadow’s Son delivers impeccably. The novel starts off with Caim working his trade, and throughout the book, we see Caim tangle with his opposition in a variety of immersive and evocative settings and situations. From a pure entertainment point of view, Shadow’s Sonnever, ever, gets dull.
I will eagerly obtain and read the just-published sequel, Shadow’s Lure, to learn more about Caim and his world.