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REVIEW: Shadowline (The Starfishers Trilogy, Volume 1) by Glen Cook

REVIEW SUMMARY: An Epic Space Opera tale.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An interesting, epic space opera revenge tale that weaves together separate story lines into an excellent read.


PROS: Shadowline pulls together three distinct story lines, weaving them together over the course of the story, in an interesting universe of interstellar politics.

CONS: The world building here isn’t up to the same level as other Space Opera novels, leaving a bit to be desired.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a very good read, with an excellent story and series of characters.

Glen Cook’s Shadowline is a rich drama set against the backdrop of space, following three story lines that come to a violent clash, with political intrigue, family grudges and space combat wrapped up in to a solid story.

Looking over a number of bookshelves, I’ve found it interesting that there is a large split between the fantasy and science fiction stories, with authors often picking one genre or the other. There are very few authors that I can list, off the top of my head, that have worked in both, but Glen Cook certainly falls on this list and his prose thus brings about a very different feel to an epic set in space. There’s a heavy fantasy element to this book, especially when one considers the names of characters and locations (Shadowline, Hawkblood, The Iron Fortress, Storm, and so on), which feels a little out of place at first, but these are largely superficial elements that don’t really impact the overall story.

However, Cook’s experience with fantasy writing does leave its mark with Shadowline. This book is really not something that should be thought of as science fiction, but falls firmly into space opera, which might help reconcile a known fantasy author moving out of the normal comfort zone of the fantasy genre and into the cosmos, bringing about an interesting look between the two genres and what actually separates them. Shadowline provides all of the familiar elements of any sort of science fiction story: there are space ships, strange planets, aliens, interstellar politics, and faster-than-light travel, but in a large way, the story doesn’t really feel like it’s set beyond our Earth: it is a story that could easily work in a fantasy setting, with its story complicated story of revenge. In a way, elements reminded me a bit of other space opera classics, namely Iain M. Banks Consider Phleblas and the other Culture novels, Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. There’s a stretch in some of those, but like these, Cook sets up a universe where this story pans out, with its own rules and cultures.

In the beginning of the book, an attack on the world Prefactlas destroyed a Sangaree family and their business on the world, where they held a number of human slaves on planet. The Sangaree viewed humanity as animals, and with the destruction, a single survivor, Deeth, of the Norbon clan was left to exact his revenge upon the human invaders, a human mercenary family known as the Storms. As Deeth survived, he fell in love with a young human woman, and together, they made their escape. Alongside this story, the Storm family rises in the region, with a dispute between brothers causing great pain and suffering. A third storyline starts with a tractor driver, Frog, as he navigates his way down the Shadowline to uncover a rich deposit of mineral wealth that puts him into the crosshairs of Michael Dee, a half brother of the Storms, and the son of Deeth. The story weaves in and out of the issues between the family, crossing at points, all the while growing momentum to the end. The story is rich, interesting and worthy of praise for its fairly complicated nature, although at points, it would have been helpful for a list of characters at the beginning.

The world building for this story feels incomplete, sadly, and represents one of the only downsides for the book. Where much of the focus is on a rich character drama and how the story lines play out, I found myself wondering more about the planets, the societies and cultures that would inhabit them. Where Consider Phlebas really succeeded in rich world building and story lines, Shadowline is really only successful in its story lines and characters, and the result of that is that the book feels a bit off, incomplete, with its stories out in the air, with a little less support than they really needed from their surroundings. Speculative fiction is a great way to show wonderful, vast and epic locations, cultures and creations – I think that it’s one of the strengths of the genre, but Shadowline left me wanting a lot more than I should have.

Despite that, it’s a terrific, solid read, a step up above other examples in the genre, and its focus on the story and characters is admirable. Shadowline is a rich, engaging read.

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

5 Comments on REVIEW: Shadowline (The Starfishers Trilogy, Volume 1) by Glen Cook

  1. DeadParrot // March 12, 2010 at 4:33 am //

    Shadowline is very early Glen Cook, first published in 1982.  It is one of his first novels and published before his major fantasy works.  I agree it’s a very good and readable space opera, but it does lack the sophistication of his later work.


  2. Yeah, I was a little surprised to see that when I first started reading it – it holds up very well, I think. I can’t say that I’m familiar with his later works, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind at some point. 

  3. The problem I have with this book was that it was a complete rip-off of Dune on numerous levels. If you enjoyed this, read Dune and you’ll be blown away.

  4. I just cant get into this book. It flips from present to past and some chapters small but just not gripping me. Am thinking of not finishing it and have only ever done that to about 2 other books – one was a Simon R Green, cant remember the other now.

    About 80 pages into the first book…….will keep on trying.

  5. The story behind shadowline is the story of Ragnarok from Norse mythology set in space. The Iron Fortress is Valhalla, Gnaeus Storm is Odin and each of his children corresponds to one of Odin’s children (you can tell which one by looking at the first letter, they match). The two ravenshrikes correspond to Odin ravens, Huginn and Muninn and his one eye is a feature that Odin has. His second in command corresponds to Tyr as can be seen from the fact that he only has one hand. Michael Dee is Loki and his children, once again, share a first letter with each of Loki’s children (Fearchild is Fenrir, Helga is Hel, Helga’s world is Hel: the realm).

    One of my favourite little moments is the death of Baldr by his blind brother Höðr, in Norse mythology, Baldr’s mother has prophetic dreams of his impending death so she makes every object on Earth vow never to hurt him. She does not get the vow from mistletoe because (depending on the source) it is too young or nonthreatening. Loki hears of this and makes a spear (or arrow in some cases) out of mistletoe and gives it to Höðr. The gods play a game, not that Baldr is immune to all of those things of throwing deadly objects at Baldr and Höðr, not knowing that he is holding a spear of mistletoe, throws that at him and kills him.

    This story is recounted almost exactly in the book with the twins (I cannot remember their names) and was one of the things that made me absolutely love it.

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