I'm not sure what's happened to me lately. Am I now constitutionally unable to choose books I enjoy, or am I becoming increasingly bitter, nitpicking, and discontented in my reviews? Whatever the case, I'm afraid Luck in the Shadows was not an exception to my ill-humour.
Luck in the Shadows is a member of the genre that I tend to call "LotR-Lite": a high-fantasy adventure in an ostensibly complex world, with low-level magic, lots of foreboding, and a small group of adventurers who travel throughout the world. If you're a fan of high fantasy and sword-and-sorcery, then I think Luck in the Shadows is worth a try--it certainly tends to get both high ratings and rave reviews. However, while said praise tempted me into reading it, I found it to contain some of my least favourite tropes of the high-fantasy genre, and for me, the interesting exploration of gender roles and action didn't quite make up for the infodumping and generic LotR-land elements.
The beginning is solid enough--a young boy trapped in a dungeon, a chance meeting with a stranger, and a daring escape--but all too soon, it succumbs to the infodump.
Luck in the Shadows is one of those books that starts out with a map and an author's note with a list of vocabulary words from the world's calendar. I'm not really a reader of epic or high fantasy, so to me, each gibberish name you add had better have a purpose. Flewelling definitely doesn't agree: everything from days of the week to locations to random histories are shoehorned in wherever possible. To me, it didn't feel as though all the gibberish had a solid foundation; rather, I felt as though Flewelling paused at each gratuitous insert to check her scrabble set. For me to become enmeshed in a fantasy realm, I have to get the sense that while the author has invented a deeply intricate world, she is being as sparing as possible, providing only the details that are meaningful for the plot. This is my distinction between the LotRs and the LotR-Lites: while Tolkien did his share of infodumping, from histories to races to languages, his world had rock-solid foundations. Despite the jabber, despite the tedious history, despite the infodumping, Flewelling's world felt shallow to me. Her characters speak in Elvish--sorry, "Faie"--but it felt like Scrabblesque "elvish pig-latin, not references to a richer world. In LotR, Luthien and TInuviel weren't shoehorned in because it gave an "elvish feel," but because their story tied directly to that of Aragorn and Arwen. Flewelling, on the other hand, has utterly extraneous, and, in my opinion, rather gawdawful poetry and ballads sprinkled throughout:
"Across the sea sailed Araman,
a hundred men he led.
His ship was black as Death's left eye,
her sails were deep bloodred.
They sailed to Simra's distant shore
to answer Honor's call.
A hundred men sailed out to sea,
but none sailed home at all.
For Honor's price is blood and steel
and Death will be your brother.
A soldier's life is full of strife,
but I swear I'd have no other!
[rest under spoilertag, because it's bloody long]
While Flewelling infodumps throughout, from types of marble quarries to historical queens, the beginning contains some of the most egregious examples. Conveniently enough, the naif protagonist, Alec, grew up in the wilds and therefore appears to know absolutely nothing about his own world. This provides ample opportunity for his companion, Seregil, to detail everything from the histories of the kingdoms to stories of the "Elder Folk" a.k.a. the "Faie" (which are not at all direct "homages" to Tolkien's elves, honest). While I understand that Alec is supposed to be the reader's eyes into the story, the idea that a boy could grow up and be ignorant of the history of his own land, the creatures in it, and his own freaking religion is patently ridiculous. The "as you know"-style infodumps so clumsy that they repeatedly threw me out of the story. This superficiality of worldbuilding is apparent throughout; while plenty of extraneous details are shoved in, I never quite lost the feeling that said details were invented on the spot. I'm oversensitive to this issue; to reach your own opinion, here's the infodump on the Faie:
"They [Alec's people] were ruled over by a priest king called a Hierophant. The first Hierophant and his followers came from somewhere far across the Gathwayd Ocean over two thousand years ago. It's from them that your Dalna the Maker comes, along with Astellas and the others. They made their first landfall on the Plenimaran peninsula. Benshal, the capital city of Plenimar, stands on the site of the Hierophant's first city."
Alec's eyes narrowed skeptically at the thought of a city that old, or his familiar patron deity having such exotic origins. He kept his doubts to himself, though, not wanting to interrupt the tale.
[Also spoilertagged for being bloody long]
However, for all the gratuitous infodumping and weak worldbuilding, I still managed to enjoy much of the story. Seregil is a typical protagonist of the genre: impossibly handsome, impossibly skilled, impossibly knowledgeable, with at least a half-dozen Holmesian disguise identities into the bargain. Yet he still manages to be likable, to the point that my various attempts to put the book aside repeatedly ended in failure. After the first quarter or so of the book, Flewelling eases up on the infodumping and the gratuitous tales, and the story morphs more into maneuverings and and intrigue in the high court of Skala, something I found far more enjoyable. The plot itself is not particularly strong and is an obvious setup for a series; we don't even get the payoff for one of the major events of the book. I find dire forebodings, dark hints, and cliffhangers to be a turnoff rather than an attention-grabber, so they didn't do anything for me, but if you're interested in a longer series, I think these aspects might be a draw rather than a defect.
One of the aspects that I absolutely loved about the story was the way it defied traditional fantasy gender roles. Not only does royal blood pass through the female line, but in Skala, women act as the country's main warriors. This change in gender roles is treated matter-of-factly, without fanfare or angsting, and I really adored this aspect of the novel. In addition, Flewelling's characters also explore nontraditional sexual roles. In the world, homosexuality and bisexuality are well-accepted, although there still appears to be a certain amount of prejudice against them. Not only that, but characters with non-heterosexual preferences take center stage: the protagonist, Seregil, is unapologetically bisexual, and, like the changes in gender roles, his sexuality is treated matter-of-factly rather than sensationally, not a vehicle for angst or tragedy, but simply an element of his personality. I applaud Flewelling for her treatment of sexuality and gender roles.
One of the attractions for the book, once the plot really got going, was its similarity to a Holmesian mystery. Plenty of clues are dropped throughout, and I thought the reveals and detecting were quite well done. I think Flewelling has a gift at capturing a tense atmosphere, and that's what kept me reading.
Overall, while I found certain aspects egregious, I'm not convinced that these are actually flaws in the novel; they may just be disconnects in preference. Certainly the book has drawn a lot of acclaim, and if you enjoy high fantasy, I think I can see the appeal. Even for a grump like me, there's something in the story that kept me reading, and given all of my nitpicks and irritations, that's an impressive feat indeed.
NOTE: SWAMPED BY MY NEGATIVITY? Before you give up on the book, here's a link to a lovely 5-star review.