PROS: Excellent development of the main character, his abilities, and the world.
CONS: Josey’s thread is not quite as strong as Caim’s.
VERDICT: Sprunk satisfyingly expands the vision and scope of his protagonist and his world.
In Shadow’s Son, author Jon Sprunk introduced us to Caim: assassin, death dealer, a killer with strange and growing abilities even he doesn’t fully understand — to say nothing of the connection to his friend Kit, ghost, fae or something else that only he can see. Shadow’s Son takes this sword and sorcery protagonist and throws him into a plot and scheme that he manages to turn around, and place his friend (and love interest) Josey, on a too-long vacant throne of a decaying Empire. Oh, and give more-than-hints to him that he is far more than he himself knows.
What do you do for an encore after that? If you’re Jon Sprunk, you have the character of Caim investigate his long-forgotten past up north past the bounds of the Empire, and you throw into that getting crowned Empress is not a Happily-Ever-After ending for Josey. Far from it, things have only begun, and uneasy lies the crown indeed. Such is the matter of Shadow’s Lure, the sequel to Shadow’s Son, where the action mostly splits between Caim’s fateful trip north, and Josey’s early days as the new Empress.
In addition to a couple of third-person antagonist points of view (just like we get to see things from Leviticus’ POV in Shadow’s Son), there is a new and unexpected protagonist point of view here: Kit. We finally get a look inside of her head, and a peek inside the secrets she has been carrying, what she really is, and where she really is from. These scenes, in a neat bit of double duty, also do a fair amount of the arcane side of the world building. While there are still plenty of secrets and revelations to come, Shadow’s Lure clears up a fair amount of the mysteries set forth on the table of Shadow’s Son. I’m a sucker for that sort of worldbuilding.
In similar fashion, many of Josey’s court scenes as new Empress allow the author to expand the lens, giving us a better sense of how Nimea fits into a larger geopolitical context. It does feel a bit like names and places (although there are, hurrah, a couple of maps), but I suspect the author is laying groundwork here for more stories and novels in this world. Shadow’s Lure is definitely not epic fantasy; it’s firmly set near the Sword and Sorcery focus of the ellipse of secondary world fantasy.
As far as Caim himself, with the aid of flashbacks and treading on ground he had left when he was a boy, as well as his interactions with an antagonist who has a connection to him, we get a better sense of who and what Caim is. In some ways, our sense of who and what Caim is turns out to be somewhat better than Caim himself has by the end of the novel. Shadow’s Lure avoids the Treading Water problem normally associated with a trilogy’s middle book. Just as Caim had a clear development through the first book, that character growth continues in the second book, as he learns to be a leader of men. It’s kicking and screaming, and he is reluctant, at best, but even as his powers, abilities and heritage become more clear, Caim continues to learn that he not only could be, but truly is more than just a sellsword assassin. It goes without saying, though, that the lessons Caim learns often come at heavy costs, and he is not the only one to have to pay them on his behalf.
The heart of Shadow’s Lure isn’t the world building and not even the well done character development. No, like its predecessor, its heart, strengths and promise is heart-pounding, throttle-to-the-maximum action and adventure. And like the first novel, Shadow’s Lure delivers in full on that score. The author has a talent for describing action and adventure with a hero that, despite his burgeoning abilities and slow revelation as to who and what he is, is still very much human. As always, the language is evocative and fluid, putting us on the streets of Othir, and the wild and dangerous north. Caim’s techniques and abilities are both recognizably similar to the first action scenes in Shadow’s Son, and he has learned some new tricks as well.
What didn’t work so well in the novel for me? I wouldn’t precisely say that it’s weak, but Josey’s thread and plots back in Othir, while good, don’t quite rise to the level of Caim and Kit’s doings, and the doings of the antagonists. It’s possible that it’s a bit of a lack of balance and that point of view problem — we don’t get into the heads and minds of the forces facing Josey back in Othir as we do with the forces Caim faces up north. As a result, Josey’s efforts to keep her new realm together feel somewhat less fully realized.
I also think that Sprunk’s strengths lie more toward the action and arcane aspects of his setting than the geopolitical maneuvering which is the heart of what Josey goes through (along with a very visceral danger to her well being). It takes a lot of time and practice and effort to make political intrigue as exciting and accessible as physical action, especially in the space of the same novel. I think Sprunk can do it, given time and practice, but it definitely takes a back seat to the physical action. However, he does leave a few dangling threads on that score that I expect will be taken up in the third book.
Overall, though, Shadow’s Lure reaches the same level of quality that Shadow’s Son does. Your humble reviewer has been reading a lot of sword and sorcery this past year, and Sprunk is most definitely a leading light in the sub-genre. Greybeards, or just the well-read who enjoyed Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Nifft the Lean, One-Thumb, and their friends would be well-advised to try Sprunk’s work and get to know Caim. As usual for series, though, you’d be foolish to start here. If you have any interest in sword and sorcery, you owe it to yourself to check out Sprunk’s work. As for me, you won’t need to put a suete knife to my throat to get me to get and read the soon to be published third and final Caim book, Shadow’s Master.