Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In a land riven with plague, inside the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control: the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation.
And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack…
Assassination; ancient, impossible machines; torture and infamy – just another typical day in paradise.
Thoughts: I don’t read much alternate history. This is largely because I admit to being quite ignorant about many historical events, different time periods and different places, and when it comes to alternate history, I nearly always feel like I’m missing something, like the story would be much better appreciated if I knew more about the time period that was being written about and played with.
Lucky for me, The Shadow Master did not feel this way at all. It was accessible history, placing the story in the middle of a setting that will feel familiar enough to anyone who read Shakespeare in high school. It has enough detail to make it feel authentic without getting bogged down in detail that will lose those who don’t have as much experience with Renaissance Italy. It’s a nice way to get your feet wet without feeling like you have to dive in head-first.
The story in The Shadow Master revolves primarily around Lucia and Lorenzo, star-crossed lovers from rival houses in the Walled City, the only city to withstand the plague that rages outside, killing and disfiguring by the thousands. Added to this is the murder-mystery and subsequent revenge story between said rival houses, with the Medici and Lorraine families at each others throats. Science versus religion also comes strongly into play through the story, with the two areas overlapping where technology and magic effectively combine. The stage is set for a complex story with plenty of potential for some epic events!
Unfortunately, much of what interested me the most in this novel actually took place behind the scenes. The plague, the religious tension, the fanatical High Priest, the man who decided he would become an angel, the people who were experimented on and are now kept in the catacombs beneath the city. These things were all given page time, but most of the story was about Lorenzo and Lucia, or Cosimo Medici’s revenge for the death of his brother. And while Cosimo was an interesting enough character (in part due to his instability and grief), Lorenzo and Lucia I found to be rather boring. There was little to them, really. Their defining characteristic was that they were in love and from rival houses. Lucia had a stubborn streak, Lorenzo has abilities in science/magic, but beyond that, I honestly couldn’t tell you anything else about them.
The second drawback is that most of the things that did interest me as I read this book happened rather randomly. I mentioned people who’d been experimented on, a man who wanted to become an angel, the High Priest starting a dangerous religious revival, the plague that rages outside the Walled City. All of these things fascinating, and most of them appear out of nowhere, have a surprise for possibly a single scene, and then no mention is really made of them after that. Especially in the second half of the book, this happens often. I don’t know whether many of these things were added solely for the sake of providing an interesting scene or two, or whether there’s something deeper that will get explored in a later novel, but unfortunately much of it came across as very haphazard. Few explanations and little follow-up did a lot to turn things from “very interesting” to “a jumbled mess.”
Something has to be said about the use of metaphor within this book, too. The Walled City is big on metaphors. Characters make jokes about how everyone there speaks in metaphor, that doing so is part of the culture, however annoying and unclear it may be even to the people who live there. So use of sexual metaphor was definitely fitting, when it was used. However, I regret to say that there’s no way I can take certain scenes seriously when they refer to breasts as “mountains of the goddess,” and a penis as “the ivory tower.” Appropriate for the story and setting, absolutely! Makes me raise an eyebrow and giggle like a twelve year old, also absolutely. Which takes some of the drama and tension away from certain scenes in which they’re used.
Still, there is a good amount of potential within The Shadow Master, and since this is only the first book of a series, I will give it a bit of a pass on not providing clear explanations to everything. There’s every chance that it was all meant to be a hook for later novels, however awkward those hooks may have been. And the idea of combining magic and technology so that the two are essentially one in the same, and then pitting that against religious doctrine that says technology is evil… I think, when it comes down to it, that the world Cormick set up turned out to be more interesting than the stories told within it.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)