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.)

Guest Post: Craig Cormick on “Creating an Alternate History World”

Craig Cormick, author of the upcoming novel, The Shadow Master, was awesome enough to drop by with a guest post about the challenge of creating a fantasy based on actual history, rather than starting from the ground up with a brand new secondary world.


shadowmaster  So I’ve been set a challenge: to talk about the issues involved in creating a world based on history, instead of world-building from scratch, for my novel The Shadow Master.

But first a quick description of the novel. It’s a kick-arse tale of alternative history,  love and conflict, madness and magic, with sword fights and mad clerics and assassins  and bombs and magical shape-changers and dark catacombs and tall towers and an  army of plague people – with everything except a car chase. And through it all is this  mysterious figure, the Shadow Master, who is manipulating everyone towards his own ends.

Sound interesting? I hope so.

And it’s set in Renaissance Italy – well sort of. Because the premise to my book is that  the world is one where science works like magic.

Let me explain.

My day job is as a science communicator, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of interesting places, including Antarctica for work – but a few years back I was at a conference in Florence in Italy, and while walking around the Galileo museum I got this idea – like one of those serendipitous moments that just appear in your head – pow! I thought, what if science behaved like magic?

I mean, what if, when Galileo invented the telescope, it actually transported you across to what you were looking at. And what if the early chronometers actually slowed down time? And what if when you strapped on Leonardo da Vinci’s flying harness you actually transformed into a giant bird?

And that became my task – to create an alternate history world that was fairly similar to the world that readers knew from history, but was also different enough to be intriguing – but to work within itself.

shadowmasterpaintingAnd that’s the tricky thing with alternate history – the whole thing has to be believable, even though it’s playing around with known realities. And if you read some alternate histories you quickly find it’s a balancing act. If you tip too much to one side, then it starts becoming too far off the path from history and you lose people who want that element of historical certainty, and if you tip too far the other way, you’re seen as not being alternate enough and not challenging the reader.

I’ll tell you a story that I use to explain the writing of alternate history. When I was studying music growing up, my jazz teacher used to tell me that you need to learn all the rules of music before you start breaking them and improvising. So you really need to do your research and find out what the world was actually like in the time era you are writing of, and then you can start breaking the rules and introducing new elements.

And creating an alternate Renaissance where science works as magic is not too large a step for most readers to make, and I can use most of the known facts about the era in the story. That includes all the things I would find out about the politics of leading families and the power of the Church and so that could be maintained, giving the story broader credibility by capturing the atmosphere of the era. Most of my books deal with history or interpretations of history, and I’m fairly comfortable doing background research for things like this. And to be honest, I didn’t know too much about the Italian Renaissance beforehand and had to do a bit of reading on it. But I enjoy that, and, importantly, I think I know when to stop collecting research and start writing.

Anyway – If, however, I’d gone down a path where the leading Medicci family were all aliens in the bodies of humans, it would be creating an alternate world that was more than a few steps away from the familiar, and I would need to create a lot more reasoning to support that and probably have to step a lot further off the known historical paths to make it work and not seem just a little bit ridiculous.

I actually find the concept of world-building from scratch a more daunting one, as it seems to me like building a large tower of balancing blocks and every new one you put in holds up another one and if you get just one wrong it all falls down – when there are inconsistencies in the world. The worlds I create in alternate history as based on pre-existing towers that are fairly solid and I’m just adding extra blocks here and there and at much less risk of it all falling down.

At least I’d like to think so!

Incidentally a highlight of the Galileo museum in Florence, if you ever get to go there, is finding Galileo’s mummified middle finger in a glass jar, turned to point at the maincathedral in the city. Payback for all the persecution he received from the Church. Check it out.

craigcormickCraig Cormick has traveled all over the world for work (including Antarctica!), and aims to sail the seven seas next. He has published over 100 short stories and over 15 books. He has lived in a varied and interesting life, and hopes that it is reflected in his works. He currently lives in Canberra, Australia, and can be contacted via his website.



Stay tuned later today for my review of Craig Cormick’s novel, The Shadow Master, coming from Angry Robot on June 24 to a bookstore near you!