Shadow – K. J. Parker

I don’t think I have ever been so infuriated by a fiction book. Genuinely, I am filled with impotent rage right now. Because this book is damned confusing, and it kept on being confusing, and then it resolved some of the confusion, only to reveal that the real confusion all along was different confusion.

The words I want to use right now are not polite words.

The premise of the story is that you follow a protagonist who has lost all his memories, and has plot happening to him while he tries to figure out who he is. This means, at the beginning, a lot of crowbarred in exposition, which is not so fun. But as the book progresses, it mostly means weird, confusing, vague dreams filled with nebulous premonitions, smug talking crows and unhelpful hints. It also means resolutions to mysteries… which beget MORE MYSTERIES. Nothing ever actually gets resolved sufficiently clearly to feel satisfying, and you just get more and more confused and angry until the book ends.

It doesn’t help, I admit, that a lot of the characters the protagonist meets are really smug about knowing who he is and just not telling him.

The thing is, I am definitely going to read the sequels. The book has left me sufficiently rage-confused that I want to know what damn well happens so I can be properly angry about it after. I’m not sure that’s what the author is going for, but as a tactic to get me to read their books, it does work, I guess.

Aside from a constant and growing feeling of rage, the book is actually quite enjoyable. The characters all have a charming matter-of-factness to them which sits well in contrast with the generic fantasy pseudo-medieval world. For all the melodrama the plot presents, the characters pretty much completely lack it, even over end-of-the-world level issues, and it makes for good, mildly amusing reading. The protagonist himself is… sort of by definition… characterless because of his memory loss, but there are some pleasing surrounding characters. The main one is Copis, a woman he meets shortly after he wakes up with no memory, and who is so charmingly, rudely undramatic I can’t help but like her. Because it’s that sort of fantasy, you meet various generals, high levels priests and relatives of the emperor – all sorts of properly important people – throughout the story… and every single one of them just talks like a normal person. It’s so rare and glorious. I can’t help but love it.

That said, plotwise, once you get past the amnesia business, it’s not hugely stunning. It’s your standard, world-encompassing danger, political fantasy shenanigans. It’s done fairly well, I admit, but the major point is very much the amnesia. And the weird religion. But they’re connected. If anything, because of the ominous dreams and amnesia stuff, the actual plot quantity is much lower than you’d expect for a nearly-600-page book. But I suppose it speaks well in the book’s favour that that doesn’t feel like a terribly bad thing either.

If I’m a little more serious, I suspect this is a trilogy where the resolution gives you a huge pay-off, you just have to wait a long time to get to it. I’m not sure what there is of the book so far is good enough for me to want to invest the time in to read the rest, but the overwhelming sense of frustration and unresolved confusion is enough to drive me on. I may not be happy about it, but I really do want to know what happens. As I say, not sure if this is actually what the author is going for, but even if it is, it’s a valid strategy and it did, indeed, work.

It does occur to me that how the book does religion is at least both interesting and not that hackneyed. There are two threads to this, one is sort of intrinsically plot-linked, and as well as coming with ominous dreams and just plain old omens, manages to achieve the “divine entities demonstrably exist” idea without, again, excessive melodrama. The other is a group of people called the “sword-monks”, who are slightly less original but still quite fun, especially the one we get as a viewpoint character some of the time, who has some fascinating little reveries about what religion means to him (including that only atheists can be proper monks… because reasons). Between the two of them, they do manage to lift everything out of the standard, generic fantasy world, but even so, I don’t think I’d be that invested in it all without the rage.

So… read it if you like being angry and confused? I do, so it was a good recommendation for me, I guess. I don’t feel all that good about that.

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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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2 Responses to Shadow – K. J. Parker

  1. That does sound like a book I’d love but find incredibly frustrating.

    I thought the whole point of memory loss was that the exposition could be spaced out and didn’t need to be frontloaded, alas.

    • readerofelse says:

      I think the issue was that you need a big infodump at the start to set the scene for the world… so why not combine with amnesia infodump? Yaaay. And there’s just not much subtlety to how the author does it. With a bit of finesse, it probably would have been way less obvious.

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