As you know I’ve become a big fan and advocate of self-published/indie fantasy. Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) has done tremendous work highlighting great self-published books the last five years. But there are many, many more great self-published fantasy works out there that haven’t made it into the SPFBO finals and deserve some recognition. Today I have the pleasure of discussing one of those great self-published books, The First of Shadows.
“How do you kill a shadow?
As a raging storm descends on the Blasted Coast, the crippled young rigger, Caleb Rusk, meets a stranger on the road. Little does he know that the encounter will pull him into a conflict that threatens everything he holds dear—and change the course of his life forever.
Meanwhile, in the Capital of Taralius, a string of inexplicable deaths have captured the attention of the Ember Throne. Second Corporal Avendor Tarcoth is tasked with uncovering the truth behind a danger that could threaten the very fabric of the Realm.” – Goodreads blurb
The First of Shadows is an action packed romp filled with swords, sorcery, and mayhem compressed into a 143 page novella. It’s edge of your seat story-telling that you won’t want to put down. There’s even a bit of murder mystery.
This book had pretty much all that I look for in a fantasy tale; stirring plot, compelling characters, interesting magic system, in-depth world building, and great pacing. Perhaps the only thing missing for me was an in-depth exploration of theme, but as it’s the first installment of a series of novellas I expect that thematic trends will play out over the course of the following stories.
The plot is briefly described above. Just let me say it’s more complex and captivating than what the Goodreads blurb expresses. I’d say more but I hate to give away any more of the plot for such a quick read. Just trust me on this.
There are four main POV characters. Now I admit this seems like a lot for such a short book but Matthews manages to weave them together really well. There’s Caleb, a local village boy who works on airships, has an injured leg, and some secret magical abilities. There’s a roaming magic wielding drifter fighting off a demon who won’t stop pursuing him. There’s a blind monk who seeks to protect magical artifacts throughout the realm. Finally there’s a curious military corporal with a past who is investigating multiple murders in the capital. Over the course of the book these four points-of-view begin to merge. Though all four never end up together you can begin to see where the story is headed and how they relate. Caleb seems to be the leading contender for primary protagonist and I’m really liking his character which seems to be complex and compelling.
The magic system is one yet to be fully revealed. There are six known forms of magic in the world. Each draws from different origins and enhances different abilities. Not all of the different types are explored in book one, but the framework for what they are and what the can do is laid down. If you like a more intricate or hard magic system The First of Shadows won’t be a disappointment.
The wold building in this book came as a surprise to me. Given how short it is I didn’t expect much in this area. But Matthews manages to make all that he can out of the short space he’s working with. The setting is somewhat western European medieval, but with some added features which make it curiously more interesting. One such feature is the existence of airships. This definitely isn’t a steampunk novel so I’m really intrigued to see where things go with ships sailing the skies in this setting. The little bit we see of the world in this book is harsh, complex, and fascinating. I can’t wait to see what is revealed in future installments.
Matthews weaves a great narrative in part due to the characters and world building mentioned above, but also due in large part to pacing. With a novella you expect the pacing to be quicker than you average novel, but The First of Shadows doesn’t really slow down. It’s pretty quick and steady throughout and really ramps up at the end. And let me add, Matthews crafts some really compelling action scenes in this little book which really help to drive that pacing.
The only thing I would have liked to have seen was something more in the way of a thematic trend. I’m a big fan of good themes in fantasy and always look for it. The kernel of a theme or two seems to be emerging at this point but I hesitate to comment too much just yet. Loss is a potential emerging theme along with living up to expectations. We’ll see what comes of these or others in the next installments in the series where I hope something more solid will emerge as the narrative takes broader shape.
The First of Shadows won’t disappoint. If you’re looking for fantasy with action, intriguing characters, and satisfying word building this is a book for you. If you’re looking for fast pacing that you can read in one or two sittings, this is a book for you. If you’ve been thinking about trying out quality self-published fantasy but don’t want to commit to a full-length novel just yet, this is a book for you. In short, if you’re looking for a damn good fantasy read, this is a book for you. Try it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.
A special thanks to Calvin Park (@cpark2005 on Twitter) for first alerting me to this book.
4 of 5 Stars
Author: Deck Matthews
Series: The Riven Realm #1
Publication Date: January 22, 2019