First of all, the TL;DR: James Islington’s debut novel, The Shadow of What Was Lost, begins as a deceptively stereotypical coming-of-age fantasy. However, it doesn’t take long for the story to develop, and breathe fresh life into well-used tropes of the genre. Even with a slightly unsatisfying climax, I deeply enjoyed this book as a whole. It’s a good fantasy, and a great adventure. 8/10.
The Review [Warning: May contain spoilers!]:
[Note: The Shadow of What Was Lost was originally released by the author as an independent eBook in 2014. The hardcover version I read and am reviewing was published by Orbit in November 2016. According to the author there was minor editing and revision done between versions. I believe that all versions available electronically are the revised text.]
Hello, Internet! I’m really not kidding about spoilers this week. So, if my TL;DR is persuasive enough for you to read The Shadow of What Was Lost, you should go ahead and check it out. The spoiler warning is there whether it needs to be or not every week, but this week, it’s DEFINITELY going to be necessary. Shadows did some really cool stuff, and I want to talk a little about that.
Based solely upon the one-paragraph bio situated comfortably at the end of every novel, James Islington is a man after my own heart. He’s a fantasy reader with whom I share many influences – Jordan, Sanderson, and Rothfuss at the top. Further, he initially self-published Shadow – with success, at that! – and then was later picked up by Orbit for traditional publishing. To me, Islington’s personal story is the success story of a kindred spirit.
The Shadow of What Was Lost begins with the standard coming-of-age story, blended with a Quest fantasy. It does a good, solid job. Not really anything excitingly new, but the old patterns are well played. Islington does a good job of giving us enough time with the characters to get to know them and see their interactions before he enters the “things change” step of the story. We’re left mostly in the dark on how the world works (magically, culturally, and politically). To start, anyway.
The main character, Davian, has to flee the magical school where he has lived his whole life because he is an Augur, rather than simply one of the Gifted. He runs north along with his closest friend, Wirr. They travel from Andarra, where the magically Gifted are firmly oppressed, into Desriel, where they are simply killed instead. They meet up with the wise-mentor character while in Desriel, and attempt to flee back to their homeland by traveling through an ancient, deserted city.
Quite trope-ey, right? But then a wrench gets thrown into affairs – and I LOVE it. The story gets very strange after their passage through the city, very quickly. Instead of a narrow, final escape from the ruin, Davian falls in a conflict and is left behind.
In the past.
Yes, this story involves time travel, which came as an enormous surprise for me – a big enough twist that I felt this book warranted extra spoiler alerts. Davian gets knocked back in time by an artifact within the city, to several decades before the main timeline. He spends three weeks in the past, learning about his magical abilities from a fellow Augur before he is pulled back into the present with fresh knowledge and power.
This isn’t the only substantial twist in Shadow, but it was the most stunning and pleasing one, to me. We later see a future Davian as well, who has been captured by forces unknown and who sends a vision back in time to Asha (another viewpoint character who is separated from the main cast. She is a romantic interest for Davian, and is a “Shadow” – she has lost her access to magic) presumably after some catastrophic defeat in the future. I felt that the time travel was done well, but I’m not willing to assert this until the conclusion of the series. Currently it looks like a “can’t change the past” version of time travel with a pleasing amount of attention to detail, but until the plot of the series resolves it will remain hard to say.
The biggest twist in The Shadow of What Was Lost comes right at the end. Another of the main characters, Caeden, suffers of amnesia. Accused of mass murder, he joins the traveling companions in Desriel with hopes of restoring his memories to clear his name. Caeden’s memories slowly trickle back into his mind, and they are our main source for the backstory and history of Islington’s world. At the end of the book, Caeden discovers that he is in truth named Tal’kamar, he has in fact murdered all of those people, and that he is (or was; it seems that this character has been a shapeshifter who can go by many names) Aarkein Devaed – who is this setting’s equivalent of Sauron or Shai’tan.
Caeden’s story is the one I’m most looking forward to in the forthcoming books of Licanius. In Shadow, he’s honestly just an intriguing deus ex machina. His backstory is deep and fills me with curiosity, but how he fulfills his frequent role as a last-minute plot device savior is, for the most part, currently unexplained within the world’s mechanics. In particular, his moral choices and the moral choices of his past lives are particularly interesting to me. The final revelation that he was once the “Big Bad” of the setting implies that there’s a lot going on which we as readers do not yet know.
So, some pretty big revelations came up at the end, which successfully left me hungering for more of the Licanius series – “Licanius” is the name of a sword which Caeden retrieves at the climax, by the way. I wondered that through most of the book.
Speaking of the sword, it functions pretty much as a McGuffin of the blandest sort. While I’m faithful that it will become more explained and interesting by the end of the series, the retrieval of Licanius by Caeden at the end of the book is a deus ex machina. The main city is under attack by the Big Bad Army, and they are losing horribly. To the author’s credit, many of the hinted-at visions of the future come true here, at least one in an unexpected way – one Augur had a vision of himself being killed, but in truth it was from the perspective of another person, who he had mind-controlled.
The Big Bad Army has reached the gates of the citadel of the city, when Caeden reappears and murders them all with next-to-no effort, courtesy of his own powers and the (rather obscure) powers of Licanius. Caeden as a character is an interesting, conflicted young man. Caeden as a plot device, however, was boring and reduced the tension of the climax in a negative way. This was probably the biggest failing to be found in The Shadow of What Was Lost.
Even with the hand-waving which goes on to wrap up the finale battle, Shadow‘s plot is very good. I found the characters to be consistently likable and sympathetic, and the setting is well-devised. In particular, the magic system had some interesting consequences.
In Shadow, there are effectively two sources of magic (although Davian, and the reader, is only aware of one at the beginning). Essence is the magic which is used by the majority of magic-wielders (called the Gifted), and kan is the magic used by a smaller group within the Gifted, the Augurs. The magic-wielders used to rule the main nation of Shadow, Andarra, through the use of the Augurs’ abilities with mind magic and seeing the future. When the Augurs’ visions began to fail, a large portion of the populace rebelled. The Augurs were killed, and the Gifted were bound by the Tenets, a set of magical laws which forced them into subservience.
Davian is an Augur, which is why he only learns to use his powers once he accidentally goes back in time to before the Augurs were killed. (Caeden is an Augur as well, but through most of Shadow it is unclear whether Caeden is a powerful Gifted, or an Augur.) For both kan and essence, people are born with the ability to access them, or not; it requires learning to use, but a person cannot learn to use it without the natural ability.
I found the Gifted’s use of essence to be fairly bland; healing, making lights, shielding, and attacking. All in all, quite staple magical abilities within fantasy. The Augurs are far more interesting. In particular, their visions of the future and the ability to mess with peoples’ minds are quite intriguing. It is the mind magic of a small, rebellious group of Augurs which leads to many of the events of the plot. One of Islington’s strongest points in this fantasy is being able to frequently hint at future events, and yet refrain from actually giving them away. As a consequence, there is a deep satisfaction to seeing how events actually played out, and how the visions hinted at them.
Recommendations: All told, I recommend The Shadow of What Was Lost pretty highly. It starts fairly slow, but once the twists in the plot hit, they hit strongly and effectively. In particular, it’s worth reading just to see the visions and time travel themes; a lot of fantasy doesn’t involve as much mental magic as external magic. James Islington’s debut novel is a true treat for fellow readers of fantasy.