The Shadow Master, by Craig Cormick

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Publication date – June 24, 2014

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.)

Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler

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Publication date – February 4, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Lord Scott Oken, a prince of Albion, and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke live in a world where the sun never set on the Egyptian Empire. In the year 1877 of Our Lord Julius Caesar, Pharaoh Djoser-George governs a sprawling realm that spans Europe, Africa, and much of Asia. When the European terrorist Otto von Bismarck touches off an international conspiracy, Scott and Mik are charged with exposing the plot against the Empire.

Their adventure takes them from the sands of Memphis to a lush New World, home of the Incan Tawantinsuyu, a rival empire across the glittering Atlantic Ocean. Encompassing Quetzal airships, operas, blood sacrifice and high diplomacy, Three Princes is a richly imagined, cinematic vision of a modern Egyptian Empire.

Thoughts: Whereas many pieces of alternate history fiction I’ve seen take place either at or around the turning point in history, or else far enough into the future that it becomes a combination of alternate history and science fiction, Ramon Wheeler’s Three Princes was alternate history set long after the division of timelines, but still set in the past, making it notable in that regard alone. Wheeler plays with the timeline of civilization so that things changed at least 2000 years ago, and the book takes place in the late 1800s, making quite a gap to fill in with possibilities and tweaks that yielded an interesting world to explore.

The Roman and Egyptian empires merged, though just how expansive the empire is remains unclear. Air travel has been invented. North American colonialism didn’t really seem to happen, and instead was more of a meeting of mind between two newly-introduced cultures. England seems to be part of the Egyptian empire, but upstarts Victoria and Albert have founded a secret cult, which believes that rulers should be appointed by and rule by divine right, instead of by elections or regional governments. This doesn’t sit well with the Egyptian empire, who hold that all faiths are equal and true and that a ruler has to actually be a good one or else risk losing their throne simply by being voted down. Across the ocean, whispers from the New World suggest that the Incan empire will soon attempt a flight to the moon.

Enter Scott Oken, royalty by blood, and Mikel Mabruke, called the Professor Prince, both of whom are well-trained intelligence operatives for the Egyptian empire. They are sent to investigate the Incan moon launch, as well as to uncover more information at the black orchid cult that is growing in strength and numbers. In Tawantinsuyu, the Incan Empire, we have Viracocha, who is the final of the titular three princes whom the story revolves around. Though really, the vast majority of the story surrounds Oken, a man who can seemingly do no wrong and who attracts women at every turn.

The first half of the story involves a lot of travelling, a fair bit of characters showing off their expansive skillsets and knowledge while dodging members of the black orchid cult as they travel by land and air from Memphis to Tawantinsuyu, across the Atlantic Ocean, in order to investigate the rumours of the Incan empire launching a ship to the moon. This plot gets all but forgotten in the second half of the book after they’ve arrived there, when they meet Viracocha and get tangled in the politics of his life. Particularly, his mad brother killing the current Incan Emperor, their father, and ascending the throne.

As antagonists go, Pachacuti was rather weak. He was insane and paranoid for no particular reason and to no particular end, and not even in such a way as to illustrate a mentally ill character. He was the quintessential mad king, seeing treachery everywhere and throwing tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He had a Disney Death, with the main characters not soiling their hands with his demise but instead having his pride and ambition lead him to keep fighting when he had clearly lost, thus falling to his own death on the steps of the empire he murdered his way into. It was hard to feel much threat from him, because his character was so flimsy, his motives non-existant, and his death unsatisfying. His entire plot arc detracted from the much more interesting issue of the black orchid cult, which was extending even into the Incan empire, but details of that got largely left by the wayside and so much went undone.

I can’t say much for the treatment of women in this book either. It wasn’t that there was a great deal of sexism, at least not that wasn’t expected for the time period and settings of the novel. But the female characters were few and far between, and when they did appear, they were either romantic interests or background characters. Just about every woman gets paired up with someone at the end of the book, which might not seem like cause for complaint, but it rankled that someone thought there was some great need to have women who appeared for a few chapters get married to men who appeared for a few different chapters, after they had canonically known each other for less than a week before making the decision to marry them! Not very impressed by that.

I rated the book 3 stars, a high 3, or possibly a low 4. Three Princes gets points on creativity for the alternate history and the rough planning of several centuries of civilization and development, and for research done on cultures less commonly seen in speculative fiction, as well as the expression of some very interesting protagonists on an interesting quest with plenty of potential for expansion. Points taken off, however, for the meandering plot, weak villains, and pointless end-of-the-book hookups. Given the cliffhanger ending, I expect this book to have a sequel, and Wheeler’s writing style was smooth and decently paced enough to keep me interested, so I’ll no doubt pursue future novels set in this world, but in the end I think it could have stood some improvement. Hopefully the things I took issue with will be evened out later on.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)