Shadowfall – James Clemens

This is another re-read, I’m afraid. Nothing exciting. I picked it up when I was at home for some mindless escapism. That said, it is /enjoyable/ mindless escapism, and has one of the more interesting systems of magic that I’ve seen in fantasy books. It was nice to see that my love of it has not diminished in the good few years since last time I read it. As always, it is another barrier between myself and the Hamiltonian behemoth, but this time, I have a genuine excuse. I can read Shadowfall without getting fully sucked in and distracted for three weeks. The Reality Dysfunction is new to me and so would probably keep me away from vital worky things that need doing right now. That is my excuse and I am sticking to it.

The basic plot and so on is nothing to write home about. Conspiracies and intrigue and backstabbing in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. Yes, there’s a map in the front. The world is called Myrillia… it’s pretty uninspired stuff. We follow the stories of two characters, for the most part, a disgraced Shadowknight called Tylar de Noche and a young girl called Dart. Between them they uncover some plots and have some adventures and try not to get stabbed by a lot of angry people. It’s fun, well-paced and decently thought-through, but it’s not worth me caring about the book that much for, even though the fact that there are characters I /actually like/ is a wonderful break from Miéville (I like Yaellin de Mar best, I think… he gets some nice backstory and some colour to his character, but there is plenty to like in most of the cast). He’s not great at writing women, I think, but that might just be personal prejudice speaking.

However, what is worth caring about is the system of magic Clemens creates. Well, “magic” maybe isn’t precisely the word. What we get told quite early on, so I don’t think this really needs spoiler tags, is this: the gods of Myrillia are real, and they lend their “graces” to humans through their bodily fluids. They don’t have priests, rather they have “hands” who are charged with collecting the aforementioned fluids in a ritualistic way. Each of the fluids has a particular function, and each god has an element (as in earth/air/fire/water… not the other kind), so their fluids are used to certain effects based on it. To quote the chart in the back of the book:

1. Blood defines the character of the blessing.
2. Masculine seed will pass a sustained blessing upon a living creature.
3. Feminine menses does the same as ‘seed’.
4. Sweat lays a blessing upon non-living objects.
5. Tears will heighten a blessing for short periods of time.
6. Saliva will weaken the blessing for short periods of time.
7. Phlegm will allow manifestations of the Grace beyond a body or object, useful in mixing alchemies.
8. Yellow bile (the waters passed by a god) will pass a blessing of brief duration.
9. Black bile (the solids passed by a god) will nullify a Grace.

Once you get over the silly old-fashioned language and the kind of ickyness of it, it is actually quite a cool system. Clemens uses it well and often, and talks about alchemy a bit now and then (the mixing of various things to enable all sorts of fun). The whole Grace thing isn’t just used for cursory plot-help or anything… he works it right into how the world works and even how the characters are made. There exist some people, mostly minor background figures, who have been “blessed” in utero to allow them to do certain things. For instance, one of the gods we meet is a water god who lives primarily in a big weed-island submerged in the sea, so people who live on/in her island must be those “blessed” in the womb with various water blessings so they can live underwater. I just think it’s a cool system, is all.

The other way it gets used is in slightly lifting the world out of pseudo-medievality. It’s all horse-drawn carts and swords and so on, but they have flying machines and submarines too, powered by blood (of an air-god for the flying machine, a water-god for the submarines). And that’s quite cool. Clemens sneaks this sort of stuff in a few times into odd places and in odd ways… and I like that. I get the impression the idea for the magic came first, and he made a world and story to fit around it because it was so awesome.

On the other hand, while I love this book for its system of magic (and I do genuinely love it), it’s not enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend it as a good book to other people. The plot lets it down a little, as does the world-building. Neither are anywhere near as good as the good idea he had for magic, and it means the feeling you get when you finish the book is quite one-sided. I put it down and want appendices. I don’t really care that much what happens next. There is a sequel and I have read it (can’t remember most of it) but that’s not what I feel I want now… I want a ten minute chat with the author to clear up some issues about what such and such a combination does and how whatever works.

Basically, it’s fun, and I really do enjoy it, but it’s not quality, really. Trashy escapism and not much more.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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