Shadowmancer

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Shadowmancer was written by G.P. Taylor and was first published in 2003. It has a direct sequel which bares the slightly less epic title of The Shadowmancer Returns: The Curse of Salamander Street and two indirect sequels – Wormwood and Tersias. Shadowmancer alone has sold millions of copies worldwide. And I hate it.

This may feel like a very strong stance to take, especially as this is only my second review. Believe me, I approached this book really wanting to like it but it is unfortunately not the story for me. Let me tell you why.

The story of Shadowmancer is largely set in the villages surrounding Whitby. It focuses on the adventure of three youths – Thomas, Kate and Raphah – and a smuggler called Jacob Crane as they attempt to thwart the evil machinations of a corrupt parson.

The preacher in question, Obadiah Demurral, has gradually grown corrupt over the years and has rebelled against God (called Riathamus in the novel) and instead sworn loyalty to Lucifer (referred to as Pyratheon) in attempt to seize all power for himself and thus force Riathamus to kneel before him. In order to do this, he needs to find two mystical artifacts called the Keruvim and time is running short for humanity as he already has one in his possession.

You might be able to tell already that this novel is a Christian allegory. It is not very subtle in this regard. Before I begin, I feel that I should say that this should not be an issue. I consider myself to be an agnostic and have no problems with reading religious fiction. I do, however, take exception to the way that is approached within Shadowmancer.

It should first be noted that, if you pick this book up and look at the cover, it does not mention that this is religious story at all. The blurb makes heavy reference to themes of witchcraft, folklore and smuggling (as well as drawing a comparison between Shadowmancer and the Harry Potter series) and so I had it pegged as a straight fantasy novel. Within three chapters, I had realised that this was not the case..

I am actually not sure if it is accurate to call this novel an allegory. The message that it presents is so heavy handed that it overshadows the story. Whole chapters which could have been used to better develop the characters are wasted as their only purpose is to form a soapbox from which Raphah can preach the message of Riathamus. Naturally, these discussions are presented in pure Socratic fashion as everyone he speak to offers no counter arguments and instead are immediately converted by what they see and hear. These sections break up the flow of the novel and so, from a literary perspective, are just jarring. Everything that comes from Raphah’s mouth has more place in an evangelical pamphlet than a novel.

The author also seems to have some very strong views about who is going to heaven. The way that he portrays all people who are not Christians is one of the things that cause me to hate this novel. The novel casts paganism and spiritualism (as well as any magic use or form of divination) in a highly negative light, portraying those who believe in it as being possessed or otherwise deluded by demons. Pyratheon even introduces himself by stating “I am the one behind every deity that is not Him. I am Pan, Baal, the earth goddess and whatever distraction I could think of to call myself and get your kind to worship him”. I find this stance utterly disgusting. There are no shades of grey in Shadowmancer. Either you worship Riathamus or you are evil.

Atheists also do not come across well in the novel. Before Raphah brings the joy of Riathamus into their lives, the other major characters have all lost their faith for different reasons. Thomas is disillusioned due to Demurral’s corruption. Kate is depressed because of the death of her mother and her abuse at the hands of her father. Crane states that he has simply killed too many people to believe in Riathamus (though I’m not really sure where the logic is there). Naturally, the events of the novel cause them all to see the error of their ways and embrace Riathamus. This is the only character development that they get. They have no character arcs. They simply are dislikeable atheists who have one moment of clarity and then become dislikeable zealots. They are not engaging or sympathetic in any way. They are just forgettable.

The treatment of Kate in particular sets my teeth on edge. Kate entered as a tomboy – tough and confident in her abilities. This is a character that I could have really gotten behind. However, within seconds she is ridiculed by Raphah who insinuates that she must have issues if she dresses like a man. Really novel? Really? Speaking as someone who was a tomboy in their youth, I take offence to this. It is never okay to look down on someone because they dress in a way that you deem unusual. Following Riathamus clearly makes Raphah a bit of a dick.

The destruction of Kate’s character continues as she encounters a demon for the first time. Faced with the unknown, she immediately loses all of her strength and becomes a shivering wreck. Rendered completely useless, she spends most of the rest of the novel being protected by the male characters – all of whom are made of much stronger stuff. This is horrible writing. As the only major female character, I really wanted to like Kate but she had no useful characteristics. It’s been a long time since I encountered such a weak female character in a modern novel and I find it, quite frankly, shocking. It felt as though the writer regretted throwing a girl into the mix and instead just opted to make her suffer as much as possible.

The only character that made less of an impression on me than the main cast was Demurral. He came across as a 2D villain – wanting to surpass God purely because he was evil. Would it really have hurt the author to give him a back-story, or at least some kind of motivation for behaving this way? I love a well-written villain and Demurral just struck me as being a waste of paper. He could have been so much more than a one note sonata.

Sorry, that went on for longer than I intended, but I had a lot of anger to get out. Maybe I should speak a little of the story itself.

Once you have stripped away the long religious discourses, there is not much of a plot left. It has a very simple structure: Raphah aims to get the first Keruvim from Demurral before the parson manages to get his hands on the second and use it to overthrow Riathamus. Not really high literature, but seems straightforward enough.

The problem is that the author over-complicates this by throwing in a lot of different plot threads that either come to nothing or just are never mentioned again. Alongside the contradictions and poor character development, this causes the end product to feel like a jumbled mess. Below are five points that I found particularly irritating:

1.  Several creatures get a brief appearance but then are never mentioned again. A good example of this is the shadowy thulak – a near invisible creature that appeared at the very start of the novel and seemed pretty threatening but then possibly realised that it was in a poorly written story and jumped ship.

2.  Some characters are given development that comes straight out of left field and serves no purpose. Towards the end of the novel, a passing NPC mentions that Thomas is a sin-eater, yet this was not even alluded to previously. Immediately afterwards, we see Thomas doing just this. Raphah immediately tells him not to do this (Riathamus’s will and all) and he stops, never to do this or make reference to it again. Crane gets a similar plot tangent that comes to naught but this one is slightly more spoileriffic so I’ll let you read that one of yourself.

3.  Some characters, such as Demurral’s servant, get a tiny measure of development and seem to temporarily reform themselves yet still seem to revert back to exactly as they were before within moments with no explanation as to why.

4.  Several important characters – Abram, Finnesterre, Farrell – are introduced within the last hundred pages of the novel. We are not given any time to know these characters, nor any reason why we should care about what happens to them.

5.  Demurral’s strength fluctuates wildly between chapters. While he wrecks a ship and virtually destroys a village during the first chapter, he never shows this measure of magic power again.

The pacing of the novel is also utterly atrocious. Although the start of the novel comes at a breakneck pace, this quickly slows to a crawl and does not ramp up again until the last fifty pages. The climax of the novel is very brief and disappointing. It felt almost as though the author ran out of space and though that he would be better off just stopping in mid flow. For a novel that felt as though it was building to a great battle between Heaven and Hell, it just was so disappointing in its conclusion.

I feel as though I have probably spoken enough and so to summarise I will say that, no matter how this novel is advertised, it is not on the same level as the work of J.K. Rowling or Phillip Pullman. With a bit of polishing this could have been a sound fantasy story, but the end result was too muddled and lacked the subtlety required to effectively deliver its religious message.

I may read some of the sequel stories one day, but I am in no hurry to do so any time soon.

Shadowmancer can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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