The First of Shadows – Review

The worldbuilding, characterisation and intrigue of a full novel packed into less than 200 pages. The perfect shorter fantasy read.

Author: Deck Matthews

Pages: 159

Publication: Self Published, January 2019

Synopsis

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.


Review

As if we needed more proof that self published fantasy authors are writing some amazing stuff recently; this novella is a shining example.

The opening sequence tells you that you’re going to be in for a great ride – on the top of a cliff above the cold depths below, a stranger is locked in a vicious battle with a faceless demon (a demon you’ll find yourself hating and wanting to destroy). The pace starts fast and never really lets up all the way through, always giving you that “ok, one more chapter” feeling. There are a number of POV characters, and what works especially well with this is that the cliffhanger ending to some POV chapters is then woven into chapters from other characters. This makes the reading flow seamlessly, due to not always having to wait for the end of other chapters to find out what happened in the previous one, something I at times found a little frustrating in series like A Song of Ice and Fire.

I won’t go through and discuss all the characters in a review but we have great characterisation here; a surprising amount for a novella of 159 pages. I already care about them and have my favourites. I also like how Matthews doesn’t blindly stick with the strong, handsome, athletic teenager trope for one of our main characters, Caleb. He has a physical disability and at times, a lack of self assurance and confidence. It’s refreshing to have a younger protagonist that doesn’t call all the shots with more experienced characters.

Something I love in fantasy when done well are animal companions, and it’s done really interestingly here, introducing us to two totems in this story, animals and humans that are melded together with magic.

Aside from just the totems and melding magic, there is loads of worldbuilding here, with a huge sense of scope and scale. The magic system feels fresh too; even though it follows some common tropes in one respect, it is well thought out and interesting. Those who are able to use magic take their power, or ‘soulblaze’ from one of four spheres; The Endosphere, the Ectosphere, the Parasphere and the Anasphere. Each sphere gives different abilities to the person taking their power from it. I find it extraordinary in a novella to be able to create a vibrant and engaging world with a lore you want to learn more and more of. In fact there is more of a feeling of immersion and being part of a dynamic and breathing world here than many writers can achieve in 500 pages. That’s a testament to Matthews’ narrative ability, which always keeps you engaged.

I was thinking about all the different facets of what can contribute towards a successful story and successful writing, and I think I can tick basically everything off here! The only thing that may be missing for readers of a particular taste is romance. There are hints of a romantic subplot developing however, and afterall there is only so much you can fit into the plot of a novella.

In a genre where books consistently exceed 500 pages, it’s great to find a more bitesize book that still feels original, exciting and fresh, with masterful worldbuilding, an interesting magic system and characters you care about. Definitely give this book a read. It’s not much of a risk with the page length but I’m convinced you’ll want to read the next one in the series!

5 stars, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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