A TALE OF STARS AND SHADOW by Lisa Cassidy (SPFBO Finalist Announcement and Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) has reached the end of round 1. We spent the last five months cutting our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, the fifth of which (The Kishi) was eliminated earlier today. Now, we’re delighted to announce that our SPFBO 5 finalist pick is…
Our SPFBO 5 Finalist
A Tale of Stars and Shadow
Dumnorix princess and born warrior, Talyn Dynan was the finest fighter of her generation. With her Callanan partner at her side, she was invincible, reckless, a death-knell to their enemies. But after her partner is torn away from her, Talyn is left broken, wracked with guilt and unable to regain the confidence she once had. Could an unexpected mission to the mysterious country of Mithranar, home of the magical winged folk, be the thing that saves her? Or will the danger and secrets she finds there finally break her completely?
The Shadowhawk lives a life in the shadows. Constantly hunted for his criminal exploits, yet desperate to help the human folk of Mithranar who are oppressed by their winged folk rulers, he haunts the streets of Dock City. The arrival of a foreign warrior threatens to upset the carefully balanced life he leads, but when she begins to offer a hope for the humans he’s only ever dreamed of, can he risk trusting her?
And unbeknownst to both, a mysterious foe stalks the dark corners of Dock City. One that answers to a single purpose…
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I hate to begin this review with a negative, but I actually think the cover does the book a disservice. The design is generic and doesn’t stand out from the crowd at all, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. The title font is nearly impossible to read, and the title itself is – like the art – generic, and only very loosely connected to the book’s plot.
However, the story itself had me hooked from the very first page, and I knew from the outset that I was reading a potential finalist.
I think the cover may be showing Talyn’s knives or possibly her partner’s since that is quite a significant if enigmatic element of the plot. But I agree it doesn’t draw you in, it’s an image that is a homage to the characters more than a lure to the reader.
The opening pages for various reasons of nautical verisimilitude and a certain lack of focus didn’t really grab me, but when Talyn arrived on assignment in Dock City pace and focus both picked up.
The cover isn’t bad, but it also didn’t really grab my interest. I don’t like the mixed fonts and it just looks very generic to me, not intriguing.
The cover doesn’t grab my attention at all, in thumbnail form it’s quite difficult to make out, and the font of the title is a little difficult to read. I’m not overly keen on the title either to be honest, it’s quite similar in style to a lot of other fantasy books out there at the moment, and it didn’t stick in my mind.
However, once we get into the book things definitely improved. I loved the maps (although, having finished the book, a map of Dock City would have been a nice touch), and the first chapter was fantastic! On the whole, this is a highly polished story; there were one or two formatting issues where there was a break in the narrative but not in the formatting. Otherwise, Cassidy’s writing style was very well executed and I loved her prose.
The cover doesn’t really sell itself – as a full size or a thumbnail for that matter. It’s all just black and gold. The typography doesn’t help either, and as a thumbnail the title blends in with the swords and spark effects, which makes things even more confusing. It’s not that I dislike it, I just don’t like it as much as I should for how much I enjoyed the story. Because I really enjoyed the story!
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
Talyn is an interesting flawed and fractured protagonist. The ragtail band of gaol sweepings that she puts together for her wing could risk being stereotypical. Some of the names – such as Zamaril and Tiercelin – conjured in my mind thoughts of prescription antibiotics as much as rogue and winged warrior. However, the mismatched handful do grudgingly form themselves into a team, and drag me grudgingly into admiration for the distinctive roles they take on.
This is where I struggled most with the book. Whole the prose was good and I liked the worldbuilding I just didn’t really click with the characters. I didn’t dislike them, I just didn’t really care one way or the other! And that really makes fiction mostly redundant… I wish this would have worked better for me, but alas – tastes simply differ and Talyn simply wasn’t really my favourite.
The first character we come across is Shadowhawk, and I immediately clicked with this character; the opening chapter was exciting and full of mystery, and at the heart of it strode this dark character with a mission.
Following on from this first chapter though, it becomes clear the main protagonist is Talyn; nobility turned extreme fighter, she’s grieving and bottling everything up. I really struggled with her at first, I struggled to connect with her and soon found her quite repetitive. On some level, I admire the way that, as a reader, I couldn’t connect with this character who, throughout the book, pushes people away – perhaps we’re not supposed to connect to her. But it didn’t make for easy reading to begin with. By the end of the book, I found that I had come around to her, I found myself caring about her and even missing her when I finished the book – but I couldn’t tell you at which point of the story this transition happened!
However, where Talyn let me down, I fell in love with her trainees, her Wing. I found myself wanting them to succeed, I found myself feeling the slights aimed their way, their many injustices. I cared a great deal more about their growth than the main character’s.
As the others have said, the characters were a bit of a struggle for me. I gelled with the Shadowhawk immediately, whereas Talyn was initially more of a struggle. That being said, as the story progresses, Talyn really grows into her own – and I wholeheartedly enjoyed her internal journey as much as her one within the world. Talyn’s grief, her depression, was well written, and something that I for one appreciated for its representation. PTSD is underrepresented in fantasy fiction, IMHO, and while I for one read for escapism, I appreciated the added realism in Talyn’s character.
But my favourite characters were the members of the wing. I’m a sucker for anything with a squad-based-story setup, and throw into the mix a ‘found family’ dynamic, and i was rooting for these underdogs (despite the unrealistic training regime – though this is fantasy, so anything goes!).
Unlike the others, I clicked with Talyn immediately, and was invested in her fate from the very outset. As someone who’s struggled with depression for the last few years, I recognised and empathised with every hint of Talyn’s attempts to both cope with and escape from her past and her day-to-day reality (such as deliberately orchestrating her own injury so as to avoid duties that are emotionally painful or stressful). Her story in A Tale of Stars and Shadow is one of the ultimate bravery: taking on a near-impossible task in an unfamiliar place and refusing to give up on it, even though the option is always there. Her triumphs against extreme adversity are exhilarating to read, and Talyn’s personal growth – and that of her equally fragile new Wing – was genuinely heartwarming.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
The plot is pretty linear, with Talyn being the main character with occasional digressions into the Shadowhawk’s point of view. The pace picked up well once she got to Dock City and her assignment. I liked that the crises Talyn’s team must confront are not of the straightforward “have a battle, kill some people” type, perhaps surprising given they are essentially a bodyguard detail. Instead we have potential environmental chaos and impending sporting disasters in which the characters must show their mettle.
The plot took a while to actually get going and to show the direction this book was going. Once it did the pace picked up and it got a lot more engaging for me than the slow start.
Any faults I do have with this book do, unfortunately, lay with plot and pacing. After that first exciting chapter, the plot slows right down until we get to Dock City a couple of chapters later. After that, I didn’t really experience any further problems with pacing, but there were minor aspects of the plot I found odd; there seemed to be quite a relaxed outlook on their guarding duties, simply accepting that the Prince didn’t want to be guarded, and I was surprised by how often they seemed to be given time off. I especially struggled with the notion of a football game being so important; up until that point, it felt like quite a serious plot and this game just felt frivolous. However, I think Cassidy actually implemented the plot point to great effect, displaying not only the importance in terms of politics but also the strategies employed by the Wing… it certainly took me by surprise.
There was also plenty of your more typical action scenes, and I felt Cassidy handled these brilliantly; they were exciting, particularly the final sequence, and I truly felt the jeopardy for the characters – there was always the double concern that either their careers were in danger, or their lives were. I felt this was an added tension – the politics, the injustice within their society, the threat – that really brought some depth to the story that I loved.
This starts with a killer opening. Character, setting, tone – it has it all. I was so swept up in how easily it flowed that I let a few things slide without realising, which is a testament to how joyfully this read. The first chapter was an author telling a story, and I felt like I was huddled around a campfire while Cassidy did just that.
Things change direction after that. PoV shifts, and with it so too does the storytelling. Setting, style, tone. Which, again, is another thumbs up to the writer (to differentiate so much between characters and how they see the world, and how the world sees them), but a bit of a shaky smile as to whether I was still on board. I was – but I wanted to be on board the ship more for the first chapter.
It takes its time, but once the story picks up, it doesn’t let go. The plot helps in this regard, but as Beth mentioned there were a few occasions of having to suspend my disbelief of things that weren’t just hard to believe, but just weren’t realistic. These were minor things like the Prince and the guarding thing, the guards themselves, the training etc. (again: training, I did struggle with it, having gone through military training). But on the majority, when it came to adding things up, Cassidy really did pull this out of the bag.
The author does an excellent job of switching POVs at just the right moments to give the reader more insight into certain situations while also simultaneously building more mystery. Both the Shadowhawk and Talyn are interesting POVs, and I felt the stakes were established well enough that even the most minor setbacks could have potential dire consequences for those we care about.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
Cassidy conveys a deeply divided society riven with inequality and exploitation. The lofty arrogance of the winged people over mere humans is credible and perhaps just an extension of how “nobles” all the way up to the French Revolution have looked down on the peasants. It is to Cassidy’s credit that neither Talyn nor the Shadowhawk seek to reset this monstrous imbalance in the course of a single volume. They do what they can, and we feel their frustration at those points where they discover that is not enough. The variety of magic and the way it merges into martial arts is appealing.
The worldbuilding was definitely the strongest point of the book for me. While I had my difficulties with the characters, I really enjoyed exploring this new world! It didn’t feel like I was hit on the head with info dumps and yet I had a good grip of the world.
I really enjoyed Cassidy’s worldbuilding! In terms of geographical worldbuilding, Dock City gave the strongest impressions and was the star of the show. We briefly see one or two other locations, but they were quite fleeting and so didn’t make as much of an impression.
I think where Cassidy’s worldbuilding truly shines is her societal worldbuilding. I had a strong sense of not only the two primary societies, but also tantalising ones of other nations in her world – and it’s clear they are diverse from each other and well developed. The intricacies in the tensions between the humans and the winged folk of Dock City fascinated me, I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the story.
The worldbuilding is strong with this one. The structured world is interwoven into the story, and both are unwound as the threads of fate unravel. When things are bound like this, I really enjoy when an author surprises me with a direction I hadn’t anticipated – or better yet, had anticipated, but surprises me by going hard, rather than just going home.
I was entirely immersed in Cassidy’s world no matter where the events were taking place. My only complaints would be that 1) the villain(s) appear a little shallow despite what we learn about the society they’re brought up in, and 2) I really wanted to experience the world just outside the city, where indentured workers are forced by the Winged Folk to risk their lives labouring in monster-infested lands to harvest a precious substance called izerdia. It’s clearly an important part of the society, and a foundation of Dock City’s economy, and I’d really like to see more about that (particularly from the workers’ perspective).
As a character-driven story, Talyn and the Shadowhawk make for engaging protagonists struggling with their own issues amid a deeply flawed society. The novel is long enough to give them both the chance to stretch their legs, and it ends with a twist I simply did not see coming, yet which still – in avoiding the Deus ex Machina pitfall – made me think, “Damn I should have guessed.” It also makes for a great appetite whetter for the sequel. However, there are points where the plot struggles to throw off cliches or appears unreasonable in how it develops. Nautical and military events described in ways which didn’t always feel authentic, even if the characters’ emotions and investment felt credible. That’s why it didn’t top my list – but may well top others’ lists.
Overall this just didn’t work well for me. It’s in no way a bad book – but I gave up on it at about 100 pages as I simply still didn’t care about the characters. When I put it down, I had absolutely no drive to pick it back up. I kept reading quite a bit longer than I usually would as others of our team really loved it! But when it still didn’t grab me, I gave up on it.
Following our initial 20% read-throughs, A Tale of Stars and Shadow wasn’t top of my list. But as I read further into it, I quickly fell in love with it, and by the end the depth and intricacies of the story far surpassed the others in our semi-finalist group for me. There were mysteries to try and solve throughout which kept me turning the pages – who is Shadowhawk? Why was Talyn requested? Who can be trusted? I couldn’t put the story down; even after I’d finished it, I kept trying to come back to it and had to remind myself I’d finished it.
I’ve tried to judge our semi-finalists by how much I enjoyed each story, and ultimately this was definitely the one I enjoyed the most.
I was torn with A Tale of Stars and Shadow. On the one hand it had everything I love (squads/soldiers, found family, worldbuilding woven into the story) but on the other hand I wanted something more from it. In hindsight I wonder if I never really recovered from the stuttered start, or whether the bumps in the road of realism left me feeling out of place. Regardless, when ranking my finalists I based my scorings on all of the topics we have covered here, but let my heart rule my decision over my head. This, logically, is the strongest contender. But my heart belonged to another book, for sheer enjoyment. However, I can appreciate why this is our chosen finalist in our group, and I for one wish it all the best in the rest of the competition!
I can unequivocally say with both my heart and my head that A Tale of Stars and Shadow is my favourite book from our batch. As soon as I’d finished reading it, I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel, which (luckily!) is releasing next week. Talyn is a believable and multi-layered protagonist, strong yet flawed and oh-so sympathetic, and I wish her well on her journey into the finals. Even if she doesn’t win, she’s shown she can take a hit and still come out swinging, so I think she’ll do just fine regardless.
*** Congratulations to Lisa Cassidy and A TALE OF STARS AND SHADOW! ***
Phase 2 of the contest begins next week! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard over the next five months here.
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!