A welcome throwback to the days of high fantasy - complete with idealized medieval communities, kings and queens, monstrous races, dragons, and magic - Shadows of Kings is a rousing adventure that makes the most of its brevity. Coming in at just under 250 pages, Jack Whitsel's tale engages the reader early on and then manages to sustain the interest (not to mention the pace), until the very end.
This is a mature tale, one which doesn't shy away from its more adult elements. The violence is graphic (although not gratuitous), with a very real risk losing limbs, heads and lives, and the romances are pragmatic (although not explicit), with marriages of convenience warring silently with mistresses of desire. Jack doesn't necessarily glorify the excesses of men at war, but neither does he shy away from exploring the acts of necessity that often accompany such campaigns.
Similarly, the duelling magical systems employed in the tale manage to be innovative and exciting, even while maintaining a semblance of familiarity. Jack doesn't demand that the reader go through any mental gymnastics to grasp how his magic works, but neither does he rely on the reader to fill in the blanks. Whether it's the magic of necromancy or that of dragons, he allows his imagination to run free, filling the story with fantastic moments of magical extravagance. What ultimately makes it all work, however, is the characters to which the magic is attached. They are well-rounded and dynamic, drawing the reader in and forcing us to choose sides, even if we may not be entirely comfortable with the potential for betrayal.
In terms of the narrative, I will admit that the tendency to change perspectives within the same scene bothered me, but once I got used to it, I settled in fine. There are several viewpoint characters to the story, on both sides of the war, and they all get their chance to shine. Fortunately, Jack doesn't allow us to get too far inside their heads, maintaining the suspense needed to drive the central mystery that underlies the story. The twists work well when they come, presenting the reader with some genuine surprises while, in hindsight, being entirely justified.
A refreshing addition to the genre, we can only hope Shadows of Kings will be followed by the second book of the Dragon Rising soon.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins