A Mildly Confusing Tale that Still Manages to Be Intriguing – A Review of Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara

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There are many reasons why I choose to pick up a novel. Ideally, it’s a new release for a series I’m already deep into, by an author I already love; in such cases, I don’t even have to pause to think before I snap up the new release and closet myself up with it. More often, though, it’s a recommendation from one of my good friends, who often insist that I either read the book they’re throwing my way, or lose their friendship forever. Other times, it’s a release by an author I’ve encountered in some other form, such as in their short stories or because they were mentioned by my favourite authors.

It’s not often that I pick up a novel because of fan art. One might assume I would do that more often, given that I’m on Tumblr a lot and therefore am likely coming across a lot of excellent fan art for novels I’ve never read before, but that’s simply not the case. I’m very careful about which blogs I choose to follow, mostly because I like being able to control what I see on my dashboard; in doing so, I miss out on a lot of content that might spark my interest in some novel or other that I hadn’t considered picking up.

But when I do find fan art that encourages me to pick up a novel, it’s usually quite spectacular. In this case, it was the art of Mathia Arkoniel (here): I saw their portrait of the brothers Celegorm and Curufin, two important characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, and it was so lovely that I had to see if they did anything else for The Silmarillion. Once I went to their blog I was sucked into the art section, and that was where I found their fan art for Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra series. It was that fan art that encouraged me to pick up the first book in the series, Cast in Shadow—well, that, and the fact that the series apparently had dragons as major characters, and I’m always intrigued by any novel that casts dragons as major characters.

Fortunately, Cast in Shadow is not an entirely bad read, but it does have its problems. There are more good things than bad, though, and that’s good, because it means there’s a high chance the other books in the series are an improvement on this one.

Cast in Shadow opens with the protagonist, Kaylin Neya, looking at herself in the mirror, and not liking what she sees:

Black circles under the eyes were not, Kaylin decided, a very attractive statement. Neither was hair matted with old sweat, or eyes red with lack of sleep. She accepted the fact that on this particular morning, mirrors were not going to be her friend.

However, Kaylin is a Hawk: a member of one of the three organisations that are collectively called the Lords of Law. Because Kaylin is a Hawk, she has no choice but to go to work, no matter how she feels about her looks: work that she’s already very late for. Her tardiness is nothing new, though, and initially Kaylin thinks it’s going to be just another day.

But it is not an ordinary day. Something has happened in the fiefs—Elantra’s version of the “wrong side of the tracks”, where the poor and the desperate live out lives of terror beneath the iron fists of the fieflords. Seven years ago, Kaylin fled the fiefs, trailed by dark events that she herself would rather forget. But those events have come back to haunt her, and it is up to her to find a way to end them once and for all—before they consume everything and everyone she holds dear.

Though Cast in Shadow might appear to be epic fantasy at first glance, it is not, exactly, epic fantasy. It’s a secondary world, but instead of the main character collecting a group of like-minded (or not-so-like-minded) individuals and going on a quest to stop some form of ultimate evil from consuming the world, the novel follows the pattern of urban fantasy. Though the basic set pieces—magic, an Emperor, different races—might be from epic fantasy, the plot structure itself is pure urban fantasy. Murders are being committed in the fiefs—murders that are remarkably similar to murders that occurred seven years ago—and it is up to Kaylin to find the culprit before more people die. If the reader is familiar with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books, then they will see the similarities between the basic plots of those series with the plot of this novel. Unlike those series, however, which are set in what might best be described as an alternate but still recognisable version of our world as we know it, Cast in Shadow and the rest of the Chronicles of Elantra are set in another world entirely.

This means, therefore, that a certain amount of world-building is important, in order to completely understand the nature of the world Sagara has built: if not necessarily what it looks like, then at least how it works. Sagara appears to have tried the “sink or swim” approach towards world-building, wherein the reader is simply dropped into the world and left to figure out the details for themselves. Some readers don’t exactly appreciate this approach, but I do. I don’t mind being made to work a little in order to understand the precise nature of the world the writer has built, and I appreciate a writer who trusts their readers’ intelligence enough to try that sort of thing with their world-building.

Unfortunately, Sagara doesn’t manage to pull it off very well in this novel. There is quite a bit of interesting information given about the various races of Elantra, but there is next to nothing about how magic works, which would have been interesting given how central magic is to the plot. There’s also very little information about the political structure of Elantra, which appears to involve some sort of caste system for some of the races, on top of a system of imperial rule implied by the existence of a ruling Emperor. I don’t particularly mind not getting all the finer details in one go: this is, after all, just the first novel in a long-running series of novels. I do, however, expect the bare bones of the structure to at least be there for me to intuit from the rest of the writing, and Sagara does not manage to include those bones anywhere in the novel. This is unfortunate, as I think it would have stabilised the novel a great deal.

Fortunately, the protagonist, Kaylin, is a rather interesting character. On the surface, she is just who she claims to be: a Hawk with a tendency towards tardiness and sarcasm:

”Kaylin Neya, you’d better answer soon. I know you’re there.”

Putting on her best we-both-know-it’s-fake smile, she walked over to the mirror and said, sweetly, “Good morning, Marcus.”

“Morning was two hours ago,” he snapped.

However, it quickly becomes clear that Kaylin isn’t exactly ordinary:

“I was with Clint’s wife, Sesti. Sesti of the Camaraan clan,” she added… “She had a difficult birthing, and I promised the midwives’ guild—“

[Marcus] snarled. But he let his hands drop. “You are not a midwife—“

“I am—“

“You’re a Hawk.” But his fangs had receded behind the generous black curl of what might loosely be called lips were they on someone else’s face. “You used your power.”

She said nothing for a minute. “I couldn’t do that. It’s forbidden by the Hawklord.” … Kaylin was, as she was loath to admit, a tad special for an untrained human. She could do things that other human Hawks couldn’t. Hell, that other humans couldn’t.

It’s already implied in this scene what the true nature of Kaylin’s gifts might be, but what’s being implied is only a small part of what Kaylin can actually do. The rest of the novel has to do with actually unravelling the true nature of her gift—perhaps not all of it, but at least enough of it to understand just what it is she is truly capable of. It’s also clear at this point that Kaylin is a rather unreliable narrator, but she’s a likeable one, at least, so I don’t mind it very much when she tries to pretend that something doesn’t exist, or doesn’t apply to her, even when everybody else around her clearly thinks the opposite.

However, I do think that this novel would have been much better if it had been told from first-person perspective, instead of third-person limited. While it’s true that third-person limited has greater flexibility in terms of what the writer can and can’t tell the reader, the way Sagara has structured the plot, choosing to tell only what Kaylin herself wants the reader to know, would have worked out much better in first-person. It would, at least, have enhanced Kaylin’s position as an unreliable narrator, and would have made this novel as a whole that much easier to read. It would have also explained why the world-building is the way it is, since everything the reader learns about the world of Elantra is based on what Kaylin herself knows: something that works out much better in first-person perspective than in third-person limited.

This brings me to another issue I have with this novel: the general quality of the writing. I suppose it’s a combination of Sagara’s choice of writing perspective, plus the fact that the world-building isn’t as solid as I want it to be, but it feels messy and rather scattered. This isn’t particularly helpful, given that this novel is, at its core, a mystery, and a certain amount of tidiness is necessary in writing a mystery so that the reader can pick up all the important clues and piece them together alongside (or slightly ahead of) the main characters. Instead, a lot of the important information feels dropped into the reader’s lap, instead of arrived at in a logical manner. This is because the reader is outside looking in as Kaylin and the other characters put things together in their heads, exchanging seemingly significant looks and phrases that the reader only comes to understand once everything has been solved. Unfortunately, finding a quote that perfectly illustrates this is difficult, as it’s a problem so deeply embedded into the novel that one must read it to see for oneself.

Either way, the issue is there, and had the novel been written from first-person perspective, I don’t think this would have been a problem. Using that perspective, the reader would have access to Kaylin’s thoughts, and would be able to follow them as she pieces the clues together. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; instead, the reader is left wondering what in the world is going on, and only figuring out what is happening after the crucial event has happened.

Despite this issue, though, the novel is still eminently readable, mostly because of the characters and the fact that there is so much promise in the novel overall, in spite of its flaws. As I said, this is the first novel in a long-running series, so it’s possible that over time, Sagara has worked out the kinks in her storytelling, I like what I’ve seen of the world, and I like the characters, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough for me to want to pick up the next novel when I have the time and the opportunity to do so.

Overall, Cast in Shadow is an intriguing read, featuring an interesting world populated by interesting characters. However, it does have issues: the world-building isn’t as solid as it could be, and Sagara’s decision to write the story from third-person limited perspective, instead of from first-person, interferes a great deal with the storytelling. However, they are issues that can be mostly overlooked, especially when one considers the fact that this is just the first novel in a series. Hopefully, though, the next books improve overall, because it would be a sad thing indeed to see these characters and this world go to waste because the author could not improve upon the quality of their prose.

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2 thoughts on “A Mildly Confusing Tale that Still Manages to Be Intriguing – A Review of Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara

  1. I quite adore this series, but I read this book three years ago, and am up to book 10, so I can’t exactly remember the flaws of the first. It’s still a great series on book 10, though. 🙂

    1. That gives me hope that this series is actually worth spending time on. I’m currently on the second book, and while I still have issues with Sagara’s choice of narrative, I’m a sucker for court intrigue so the plot is pretty much tailor-made for my preferences :D.

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