THE FIRST OF SHADOWS by Deck Matthews (SPFBO Semi-Finalist Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is reaching the end of round 1! We spent the last five months cutting our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, the third of which (Snowspelled) was eliminated yesterday. We’ll be announcing our SPFBO 5 finalist tomorrow!
Now for our next semi-finalist elimination…
The First of Shadows
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.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
The cover is a bit bland, but not bad. It didn’t really catch my eye, but at least it didn’t scare me off, like some others!
There’s a really nice map at the end I enjoyed studying too.
I have to admit, before reading this, I spent way too much time staring at the jewel trying to decipher whether there was something inside of it…a symbol, a silhouette, or a secret staring right back at you (see: green glint on the right hand side – I swore it was an eye).
I don’t feel drawn in by the cover. Maybe it is striving for enigmatic, and having characters depicted on covers is probably over-rated, but this, although well drawn, felt nondescript in marketing/plot terms.
For quite a while I had misread the title as “Fist of Shadows” which would I am sure be a very different book.
*tries to stop laughing at Theo… fails….*
Ahem, anyway. The cover is quite bland unfortunately, as my fellow judges have said. The tagline is quite interesting but, along with the title, they don’t seem to link with the jewel. Obviously when you read the story, you discover the jewel is of course very important. It just doesn’t make a great first impression – which is a shame, as this is a great story. I was also a little frustrated to get to the end of the book and find the map. I had no idea it was there!
The cover didn’t make much of an impression on me. However, the opening chapter – filled as it was with mystery, tension and action – drew me in immediately.
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?)
I liked the characters, and considering how short this book is, they grew on me remarkably fast. Some need a bit more fleshing out, but I think that’s something to come in later installments of the series.
The dialogue felt mostly well done, which is a big plus. So often it feels stilted and artificial in the books I read for SPFBO.
But here come the big bonus points from me!
I have aphantasia, which means I can’t visually imagine anything. And there was this one scene with a new character that had me really fascinated, as it managed to draw me into the scene a lot more than descriptions usually do. I am usually good at imagining the scent / feel / sounds and therefore dive into the world, but it’s rare that I get the scene set this perfectly by the author. Often most of the description is visual and my mind has to make up the rest that comes along with those. This had me surprised, as it was quite a bit into the story and the scenes before didn’t do this. And at the end of that scene we learn the new POV is blind. I LOVED this! So much! Not just because I always have a weak spot for blind characters (my eyes are bad and two of my grandparents are almost blind), but because it was done so very well. This makes it one of my favourite reads in a long time.
Bouncing off of something Julia just said, one of the things FoS does well, and really well for me, is breathing just enough life into the characters to make them real, but also leave room to grow in the future books. This is a short book, and there’s a lot going on, but for me I really appreciated the fact that the characters were all given room to be themselves. Maybe a few too many POVs for me, especially given the length, but I have a feeling they’ve all got a purpose going forward.
There was a lot in the characters that I liked. Drifters are always engaging since Clint Eastwood first rocked up looking for a fistful of dollars. The irrepressible Michael-Myers-like demon had a very distinctive voice. The portrayal of the blind character felt authentic. Tanner Hoff was also fun to meet and see in action.
Caleb the protagonist in some ways felt like he could have had more agency – my impression was that he seemed to be responding to direction from others a fair bit rather than driving events and while I liked him, I didn’t warm to him as much as I might have.
I fell in love with some of these characters quite quickly; the opening chapter is very exciting, and I was eager to discover who this mysterious character is, and why he’s being hunted. The next character we encounter is Caleb and again, I found him very interesting. He has a disability, but it felt secondary to his love for his job, and what was happening around him. I quite quickly felt connected to this character, I felt sympathetic towards him – I wanted to know more about his totem, I wanted to know if he was going to take up the pirate’s offer…
As the story progressed, Caleb seemed to draw towards him a cast of interesting characters and I was excited to discover what their dynamics would be together.
However, I struggled a little with our other PoVs; even now, I can’t even remember their names! You had the blind priest-like figure who is working for some kind of secret order that protect magical artefacts. Then you had the guard-like character who had been paired with Blind Priest to solve a murder… Although they were well defined, I didn’t necessarily feel like less effort had been put into their development or anything, I found it much harder to connect to these characters.
I actually liked all the major characters. Caleb is a protagonist whom the reader almost immediately admires and sympathises with; Palawen is strong and independent; Tiberius and Avendor gave a wider perspective on larger events while also being interesting enough characters in their own right.
However, I was a little disappointed in the representation of female characters. Caleb’s mother is two-dimensional at best, and is later [SPOILER – highlight to read] pointlessly killed in an example of perhaps my least favourite trope in literature (‘woman dies/is hurt in order to motivate the male protagonist’); and despite Palawen’s initial awesomeness, she gradually seems to be relegated to little more than an emotional support human and potential love interest for Caleb. I’d like to be proved wrong by the sequel, though!
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?)
Once I started it, I was hooked. I clicked with the main characters, especially the second one, right away. The concepts of the world intrigued me a lot, so I flew through the book at speed, waiting to see where it all goes! The switch between POVs worked well and kept me glued to the pages.
The end was the most disappointing part for me. Not because of what happens, but because – it just ends. There is no closure at all, and it feels like it’s only half a book. Yes, it’s the start of a series, but even with a series I expect each book to have its own arc, and while the big plot might just start to get rolling at the end of a book, I want some resolve for the single book. This felt like a big book was simply chopped off… This really took away from the story and it left a hollow feeling. The start and end of a book are the most important things. The start has to hook the reader right away and the end has to be satisfying in a way and yet leave the reader wanting MORE. Here I felt a bit cheated instead.
This packed in quite a bit, flitting between two distinct settings in a short volume. I think a key factor for me is that the two strands hadn’t physically joined by the end of the book; characters from one location had yet to meet or communicate with characters from the other. For me that underlines how this felt almost like an extended prologue, a story in the making. While we have had other short books within our semi-finalist selection, this was the one that seemed to have the most open-ended – to the point of “incomplete” ending, if that makes sense – and, like Julia said, there was a sense of being cheated with too many plot positions left open at the book’s ending.
Of our 6 semi-finalists, 3 share a very similar criticism from me: their endings. They just…happen. Turn of a page and then hey, here it is, the end. Chapter closed. Book done.
And, interestingly enough, these same 3 are all what I call ‘the short ones’. Circa 150~ pages long. They’re all ‘book 1’ in their respective worlds/series, but I feel that because of their length, they don’t stick the same landing as a weighty novel would with a satisfying ‘thunk’ when it’s all said and done. Instead, they start strong – and First of Shadows started really strong for me – but at the end it’s a bit….’wait, that’s it?’
That being said, this is what I would call a page burner. I sped through this (and yes, that might be because it’s a short read), thanks to how tightly plotted and paced it was. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more of it!
I have to agree with Mike here, the ending really did just ‘happen’. I kept looking at the percentage read and thinking, ‘that can’t be right, surely?’. The pace was quite tight, alternating between some great action sequences and scenes built more on intrigue. But as Julia said, it really felt like the book was chopped in half, and we were missing the last 50%. We don’t end on any resolution – if anything, we’re left with further conflict. It’s clear, therefore, that this is merely ‘book one’; but I’m not one for accepting the whole ‘sets things up for the rest of the series’ excuse. I expect to be able to have some form of satisfaction in terms of plotting, before being led into a next book. It was so disappointing, as I’d really been enjoying the story!
One other thing that really disappointed me was when a particular trope raised its head – highlight to read the spoiler: we’re pretty low on female characters in this story, so I was less than impressed when the mother died! Why do mothers keep having to die for protagonist motivation? I really hope my kids don’t find any magic swords, or go accepting quests from mysterious strangers, or find dragon eggs…
As mentioned above, I’m in complete agreement with Beth about this trope, and with everyone else about the book’s length and ending. While I very much enjoyed The First of Shadows, for me it felt less like book one in a series and more like a prequel novella. It was one of my strongest finalist contenders up until around the 75% mark, when everything sort of just happened, and then it ended. As with Snowspelled, I felt let down by this, and couldn’t help but think this would have been a much stronger book if only it had more substance.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
I loved all the little things that slowly build up to a bigger picture. No info dumps made for quick and easy reading. At times I actually wished for a bit more explanation or more than the glimpses we got. Different brands of magic, some with a kind of spirit animal (I’m always a sucker for animal companions!), flying ships – there was enough to make the world feel new, but it definitely doesn’t overdo it.
First of Shadows is one of those books where you hit the ground running. If you don’t keep up, that’s fine, because it’s never going to pull so far ahead that you get lost, lagging behind cause you’ve missed a key factoid along the way. But if you were hoping for an in-depth explanation, a la a guided tour as your race along, this doesn’t dwell on the details. There’s LOTS going on, and it’s all there within easy reach, so when demons, sky ships, different magic types etc. get thrown into the mix, it’s enthusiastic, and I found that exciting.
Skyships – what’s not to love. And I liked the casual worldbuilding in the invention of colloquial phrases like “We might as well try to bottle the Last Wind, sir.” The kind of thing where you simultaneously know and don’t know what it means.
I think the judges’ quite short responses here mirror the world building. There was just about enough to give you an impression of the world, a sense that there are different societies, there are underlying tensions and possible state secrets… not to mention – one of my faves – ancient magic they no longer fully understand. And Welsh! I know I’m easy to please but, provided it’s implemented correctly, I do love it when Welsh crops up in fantasy.
There isn’t much else for me to add. The worldbuilding is well done, and smoothly integrated with the story. In fact, it’s excellent – but again, it feels almost wasted on such a short book.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
I am a sucker for banter, and this easy exchange between Caleb and his owl companion towards the start of the book had me feeling right at home.
I’m not going to let you scratch his eyes out, replied Caleb.
Just one eye?
I could just peck at his ears.
I liked Avendor’s observation about one relatively crime-free quarter of the city of Taralius:
“There was little in the way of crime or begging in Hammerfall. Something about smiths and their hammers tended to keep vagrants and brigands away.”
I absolutely loved this comparison of the sky to the sea; I thought the image of drowning in cloud quite a vivid one:
“The winds crashed all around him, throwing him in every direction. Clouds struck at him like waves, ten times the height of a man. They obscured his vision as he fell, filling his nose, choking the breath from his lungs.”
I really enjoyed this one overall, even though it had a few flaws. At times it was a bit predictable, and the first scene that had archery in it made me wince a bit. (As I do archery myself that is a pet peeve of mine…. You don’t “fire” an arrow. And if you fetch your bow from any sort of storage it won’t be strung already, so you’d have to do that before you can use it… though I don’t think it would annoy other people as much as me.)
There’s also one moment when a character – absolutely unfitting for the moment, too, as it’s in the middle of a fight scene – thought: “Strangely, he found himself thinking she was prettier when she smiled.”
These things were balanced out by interesting world building, overall good characters and fluent prose, plus the well written POV from a blind character, so I really enjoyed this one an awful lot, even though it’s flawed and the end left me very unsatisfied.
I was so very well entertained though, that it still finishes as my personal favourite of the whole batch of 30 books!
I should note that there was a lot of bunching with my views of our semifinalists. While I had a couple of leaders, there wasn’t much to separate the others who were all worthy semifinalists. In the end I ranked First of Shadows 5th because, imaginative worldbuilding aside, it just felt less complete as a story than the others.
Despite how quickly this one ended, and The Trope (and the “prettier when she smiles” line, ugh), I still enjoyed First of Shadows so much! I couldn’t put it down, and when I had to, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I loved the balance of action and mystery. For my ranking, it takes second place.
First of Shadows tugged on the strings of nostalgia for me. It has this inherent enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but be excited by. It reminded me of the stories I first picked up when getting into fantasy. And yes, it has its flaws (which I think could have been fixed by turning this into a full-length outing, giving more page time to develop the story and the world), but it delivers on what it sets out to do – come out swinging, and keep on keeping on until the bell goes. Sadly, the bell went a little early, and I for one would have preferred a longer bout.
***Commiserations to Deck Matthews and his fast-paced adventure fantasy The First of Shadows.***
We’re now down to just TWO semi-finalists. Check back tomorrow to find out which one will be our finalist!
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, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!