Luck in the Shadows - Lynn Flewelling

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]

On the city walls stood King Mindar, 

he watched the ship draw nigh.

Five hundred men were at his back

and gave the battle cry.

Then marched they to the battle plain

to meet the seaborne foe,

While Araman and his hundred men

came all ashore below.

 

For Honor's price is blood and steel

and with your life you'll buy it.

But the ladies love a fighting man

and there's none that will deny it!

 

Then Araman strode on the field

and Mindar stepped to meet him.

"Your lying tongue has brought us here!"

cried Araman to greet him.

"I see your force is greater,

you have numbers on your side,

But by my sword, I'll see you dead

'ere the turning of the tide."

 

For Honor's price is blood and steel

though flesh won't stop a sword.

The glory of a soldier's death

will be your last reward!

 

Then on the plain the armies met

and sword rang out on shield.

Helms were cloven, limbs were hacked,

yet neither side would yield,

Until the generals found themselves

alone upon the plain.

Six hundred soldiers, brave and bold,

would never fight again.

 

For Honor's price is blood and steel

and well the widows know

The worth of Honor to the lads

now lying down below!

 

Then toe to toe and blade to blade

the two fierce warriors fought.

To steal the heart's blood of his foe

was each one's only thought.

From their wounds the blood flowed down

to stain the trampled sward

And when the tide was turning

Mindar fell to Araman's sword.

 

For Honor's price is blood and steel

for churl and lord as well

And generals often lead their men

down to the gates of hell!

 

Bold Amman, the victor now,

lays his blade aside.

From his wounds his life flows out

just like the sea's great tide.

The price of Honor paid in full

with blood and steel and lives.

On an empty plain by an empty shore

the rightful victor dies.

 

For Honor's price is blood and steel

so harken well, my son.

Honor's a damned expensive thing

if you're dead when the battle's won!"

(show spoiler)

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]

 

"Over the years, these people and their religion spread around the Inner and Osiat seas, founding what eventually became Mycena and Skala," Seregil went on.

"And it was these people who brought the worship of Dalna north?"

"That's right. The Hierophant's people worshiped the Sacred Four: Dalna the Maker and Astellus the Traveler, whom you know; and Illior Lightbearer and Sakor of the Flame, who never caught on up in these parts.

"But getting back to the subject at hand, the unity of the Three Lands didn't last. As centuries passed the different regions developed ways of their own. The Plenimarans, for instance, stayed by the great Gathwayd Ocean, a body of water larger than you've ever dreamed of. They're still great sailors and explorers. It was the Plenimarans who sailed south beyond the Strait of Bal to discover the Aurenfaie--"

"Hold on! Aurenfaie? Like the Faie up beyond Ravensfell?" Alec broke in excitedly, then felt his cheeks go warm as Seregil chuckled.

"That's right. Your Elder Folk, properly called the Hazadrielfaie, are said to be the descendants of a group of Aurenfaie who went into the northern lands before the time of the Hierophant. Aurenen lies south of the Three Lands, across the Osiat and beyond the Ashek Mountains."

"Then the Aurenfaie aren't human, either?"

"No. Faie, in their tongue, means 'people" or 'belonging to, while Aura is their name for Illior; hence, Aurenfaie, the People of Illior. But that's another story altogether--"

"But they are real?" Alec persisted; this was more than Seregil had let on previously. "Have you ever seen any? What are they like?"

Seregil smiled. "Not so different from you and me, really. No pointy ears or tails, anyway. They're a handsome folk, for the most part. The main difference between Aurenfaie and humans is that the 'faie generally live for three or four hundred years."

"No!" Alec snorted, certain this time that his companion was pulling his leg.

"Think what you like, but that's what I've understood to be true. More important, however, is the fact that they were the first to possess magic. Not that they're all wizards, of course."

"But priests have magic," Alec interjected.

"Especially the drysians. Long ago, when the Maker still lived among the people, Dalna came to a woman named Drysia and revealed to her all the secrets of the land and its proper use. The drysians can draw on the power of the earth and they know the secret uses of herbs and stones. Some even know the speech of beasts."

Seregil regarded him with that peculiar tilted grin again. "You've got a touch of the skald, too, I see. You're correct about priests having magic, but it's not the same as true wizardry. If you ever see a real wizard at work, you'll recognize the difference."

"So all wizards are really Aurenfaie?"

"Oh, nothing of the sort. But they did mix blood with the Tirfaie."

"Tirfaie?"

"Sorry. A good story teller should always know his audience. Tirfaie is the Aurenfaie word for outsiders. Roughly translated, it means 'the people of short lives'."

"I guess they'd think so, if they live as long as you say," Alec allowed.

"Just so. Anyway, during the years when the Aurenfaie had open commerce with the Three Lands, the peoples mingled and many of the half-blood children were born with magic. Some stories even claim that Aura-or Illior, depending on which side of the Osiat you're from-sent a messenger in the form of a huge dragon to teach these half bloods how to use their powers."

"Dragons are real, too?" breathed Alec, more wide-eyed than ever.

Seregil grinned. "Don't get your hopes up. As far as I know, no one's seen a dragon in Skala since then."

"Skala? But I thought the Plenimarans were the ones who found the Aurenfaie."

"And I thought you hadn't heard this story before," Seregil countered dryly.

"I haven't, but you said that the Plenimarans-"

"They did, but the Aurenfaie got on best with the Skalans in the end. Most of those who stayed in the Three Lands settled there. But that was a very long time ago, more than eight hundred years. Eventually most of the Aurenfaie withdrew to their own land again."

"Why did they leave?"

Seregil spread his hands. "As with anything, there were many reasons. But their legacy remains. Wizard children are still being born and they still go to Rhнminee for training. That's the capital city of Skala, by the way."

[NOTE: I know this was long, but it's in the first 20 pages, and in the free preview in both Amazon and Google, so I didn't feel too badly quoting it. And you kind of need the length to get the full effect.]

(show spoiler)

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.

 

 

At the same time, I have a deep and abiding hatred of May-December romances, especially relationships between students and teachers.  For me, it feels exploitative, no matter how genuine the emotions.

(show spoiler)

 

 

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.