BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In Modern London, a Shapeshifter discovers that Modern London is just a veneer for a complex and complicated otherworld threatening to erupt.
PROS: Interesting take on the otherworld; excellent evocation of London as a place; memorable protagonists; often extremely funny, dry humor.
CONS: Some aspects of the stories of the protagonists seem under-written.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting addition to the growing set of Urban Fantasy novels that deal with the Matter of London
Being a girl from the countryside, that is to say, Wales, is difficult in modern London. You are no longer with your boyfriend, need to find an apartment of your own, need to find a job, need to find yourself. And the end of your relationship….changed you. So what do you do? What you do, if you are Rhian Jones, is move in with a witch, take a job in a bar, attract the attention of an Elf Lord, and start to get fully wrapped up in the undercurrents of myth and magic that lie just beneath the surface of glitzy, modern, glass and steel London. It’s enough to make one howl, really.
In the meantime, Karla and Jameson; one’s not human, and the other has lost much of it in too much war and darkness. Still, they are the best field agents in the only agency dealing with the Supernatural in England, and so when dark doings start showing above that surface, they’re the ones to send on the job. But if things from the otherworld or crazy summoners of same won’t get them, the bureaucratic infighting between departments in their agency just might instead. And when these protagonists collide, that’s when things get really interesting.
Wolf in Shadow is a novel from John Lambshead. Perhaps better known for being a collaborator with David Drake, Wolf in Shadow is his first novel-length foray into urban fantasy. More to the point, like Paul Cornell’s London Falling and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot/Rivers of London, Wolf in Shadow is part of a growing subgenre of urban fantasy that is set in and around London.
The strength of the novel is the evocation of London, in all aspects of the word. We get to see London on the surface, the modern city of glass and steel, technology and all that is new. We also get glimpses into the otherworlds layering the same space. Distorted, often very distorted and twisted versions of London’s past are just a gate away, and we get to see several of them, wonderfully details. Readers who are familiar with my tastes will not be surprised that a particular favorite was an evocative world based on Roman-era London. These layers of reality, distorted reflections of what stands currently, reminds me of the Umbra from the World of Darkness roleplaying game line.
The novel often seems to be having the most fun when the characters are in one of these otherworlds, even as the protagonists are often fighting for their lives, although a memorable conflict scene at a real life miniatures convention was a well-done set piece in the novel.
Speaking of those characters, the author sets up an interesting cast. While Jameson as a broken veteran is relatively standard as a character, the three female leads (Rhian, the shapeshifting girl from Wales; Karla, the inhuman engine of destruction; and Frankie, the pleasantly quasi-retired witch) are an interesting set. Throw in a cast of secondary characters ranging from a no nonsense bartender to a Elf Lord quite taken with Rhian, and you have a stew of interesting people to bounce off each other, the furniture of the novel, and the antagonists.
As fun as the action scenes are, the humor in the novel leavens it and really gives the novel its personality. From dry witted criticisms of the nature of bureaucracies (reminding me of the Laundry novels of Charles Stross) to social commentary on gamers, to more political fare, this humor is often quite funny. On the last part it seems obligatory for novels from this publisher to always have some socio-political commentary of one stripe or another enfolded into the narrative. Fortunately for this reader, the political commentary was far less extreme than I was fearing, and the oxen that get gored have it coming, and it is done with humor.
The major weakness I found lies with some aspects of the characterizations, especially Jameson and Rhian. We get some crucial pieces of backstory and history of the characters, but in some cases, there are frustrating gaps and things left unexplained that I would have liked to have explicated. This under-writing of character is really the only major flaw in the book, but I did notice it. If I had to nitpick, plot-wise, I was disappointed in how long the author keeps the two sets of protagonists apart, as if amusing himself to do so for as long as possible.
Overall, especially compared to its contemporaries, Wolf in Shadow is much lighter in tone and style and rollicking entertainment. It’s a promising start to what could be yet another fantasy series set in London, but with a distinct voice and niche of his own. I’d like to see what the author does with the characters and the worldbuilding he has started a foundation with, here.