Welcome to my stop on the Shadow Debt book tour hosted by Storytellers on Tour!
William Ray has done it again. By that I mean he’s offered readers another fantastic story in his Tales of The Verin Empire series. This one comes with gun slinging outlaws, a no-nonsense sheriff, a claim rich mining town, indigenous tribes chaffing at a colonial presence, fantastical monsters, and a dose of shadowy magic just to keep things interesting.
“Glynn Sorley is sheriff of Keat’s Field, a tiny settlement in an otherwise lawless frontier. With the discovery of diamonds, her town is flooded with fortune-hunters looking to strike it rich. It’s also a target for competing colonial powers, savage goblin tribes, and outlaws.
A rustler on the run from the law stumbles across his father’s mysterious legacy – a weapon of immense magical power. He uses it to ravage across the territory as the notorious outlaw Gentleman Jim.
But the weapon’s power comes at a terrible cost, and Keat’s Field may just have to pay the price…
This third Tale of the Verin Empire returns us to the world of Gedlund and The Great Restoration. It explores a frontier trapped between competing nations, where goblins reign and a lone sheriff fights to keep the peace.
Drawing inspiration from L’Amour’s Comstock Lode, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and our own late 19th century, Shadow Debt continues William Ray’s bold, critically acclaimed reinvention of classic fantasy in a world of memorable characters and unique perspectives, and features sketches from acclaimed illustrator Tom Parker.”
If you don’t already know, it was William Ray’s Gedlund: A Tale of The Verin Empire that was my gateway book into self-published fantasy. What I loved about it (besides the story) was the way in which it wasn’t your normal fantasy. It was a mix of genres like black powder/military fantasy, vampires, sword and sorcery, and filled with magic and monsters. But more than that, it sought to capture something typical fantasy (at least epic fantasy) doesn’t do, and that’s to focus not on some grand future that the past is building toward, but to explore the “present” in light of the past, and all that comes with it.
Ray followed Gedlund up with The Great Restoration which had some of the elements above, but was written as more of a 19th century detective story. Somehow Ray managed to pull off a book that included some characters from the previous story while totally switching up sub-genres.
With Shadow Debt Ray has switched things up again while maintaining some of the overall thematic elements of the other books. In Shadow Debt we get a mix of 19th Century dime western and imperial exploitation reminiscent of Britain’s foray into South Africa. It’s a mix you’d think wouldn’t work but Ray pulls it off fabulously. Throw in some dark soul capturing magic and you end up with another great tale in this continuing series that can be read as a stand-alone without prior knowledge of the other books.
Ray tells the story through two alternating points of view, that of a notorious outlaw with a mysterious gun, and that of a somewhat self-absorbed newspaper reporter. Ray uses these characters in different ways. The gunslinger Gentleman Jim takes the reader on a dive into the psyche of an outlaw and the reasons for the decisions he makes, even if some of them are not of his own volition. Jim is is complex and someone you want to lose given all that he’s done but you can’t help but hope maybe things will work out for him in the end. The reporter Ned at times seems like a progressive fighting for things like the rights of women but then shows he’s still a man of his age with all its negatives. But it’s through him and his desire to tell a story to readers back home that we really see the other primary characters Sheriff Sorely and Essie, both of whom truly have power and stature and agency that men like Ned don’t possess.
When I said it’s a western I meant it. It has cattle rustling, and train robbing, and shootouts on main street, all of which will make you want to hop on a horse and ride into the fray. Then there’s the tensions with the indigenous goblins, dealings with the army, and full-on gun battles that seem both western and taken from British colonial history. All this set within a mining town just outside the furthest borders of the Verin Empire. I loved how Ray mixed these elements into the setting for the book.
But it isn’t just the setting, but the way the setting impacts the writing that was so entertaining for me, especially the western elements. There’s a HUGE dime novel feel to parts of the book, especially the climax. Think of all the great Westerns you’ve read or watched with epic gunfights and you’ll have feel for what’s in store here. By the end you’re left wondering how much was “real” and how much embellished by an author who may not have witnessed all the events in order to sell a story back home as it all comes together in one explosive action packed ending.
Oh and then there’s magic and the supernatural. This is ancient god powered magic that has seeped back into the world. It threatens individuals and nations alike. A magic that threatens to drive those it possesses mad unless they can meet its terms or overcome it. Will they succumb to it’s whims and desires? Can they master it? Or is any of that even possible. It’s the magic in this story that really drives much of the narrative toward it’s end, and keeps that fantasy feel alive.
Shadow Debt picks up on some themes explored in Ray’s other books. One that really stands out is the role women play in society. One half of the story is devoted to the unusual notion of a female sheriff in one of the most dangerous territories around. Yet it is this sheriff and other women in the book who are truly the primary movers and shakers in their community. As with his other novels in this world Ray also explores the theme of Empire at the periphery. What I mean by that is the way you can tell the true nature of a country by the ways it exists and operates in the territories at it’s edge, where it interacts with other peoples and nations, or where there is no governance at all. It’s in this area that Shadow Debt really takes the two above themes and explores the notion of law and lawlessness, who holds power and who doesn’t, whether the governing empire wants to admit it or not.
I really enjoyed this third foray into the Tales of The Verin Empire. I don’t typically read westerns and I was unsure how I’d feel about this one even though I was a fan of Ray’s other two books. Ray has built a world I truly want to explore more of, and he’s gone about it in a way I haven’t seen other authors do, by changing up sub-genres with each book. It’s a great example of reward following risk and I’m glad he took the risk. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for future Tales of The Verin Empire and just what genre Ray will use to tell them.
4 of 5 Stars
Author: William Ray
Publication Date: September 20, 2020
Genre: Fantasy: Gaslamp Fantasy
Age Group: Adult
You can find out more about Shadow Debt or purchase a copy at the following links…
William Ray is the author of the Tales of the Verin Empire; including Gedlund (named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016), The Great Restoration and the forthcoming Shadow Debt.
Originally from North Carolina, he currently lives in Reston, VA with is wife and dogs. A graduate of Ithaca College, and Wake Forest’s School of Law, he has worked in television, retail, patent prosecution, trademark law and other irrelevant nonsense. To paraphrase Lloyd Alexander, however, if being a life-long lover of fantasy literature qualifies one to write it, then he is well qualified indeed.
Be sure to follow along for the rest of the Shadow Debt book tour over the coming week. There’s some great blogs who will be hosting reviews and more!