FORGED IN SHADOW by Megan Haskell (SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist Book Review)
The sixth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is almost reaching the end of round 1, and some of our fellow blogs have already started announcing their finalists!
As you know, we’ve cut our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, and for the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – each of these books in full before eventually announcing our SPFBO 6 finalist on Friday.
Without further ado, then…
Forged in Shadow
In the chaos of war, not all heroes shine. Some must rise from shadows to claim the light.
As the youngest son of the greatest smith of the fae, Curuthannor should be aspiring to the forge. Instead, he would rather wield a blade than craft one. When the high elf king commissions a powerful enchanted sword requiring iron found only in the subterranean goblin mines of the Shadow Realm, Curuthannor seizes the opportunity to earn a place in the smithy that doesn’t require a hammer. But when dark elf treachery interferes, the lives of his entire family could be at risk…for the high elf king is unmerciful and will not suffer disobedience.
Especially from his own daughter.
Lhéwen is honored to be the only handmaiden selected to attend the high elf princess on what she believes is a diplomatic delegation to the dark elf king. She doesn’t realize it could be a one-way trip. While the princess forges an escape from her father’s ruthless will, Lhéwen is trapped in a foreign land. Betrayed and alone, Lhéwen discovers it is her own quiet power that may free—or doom—them all.
For when the pen fails, the sword will take its place.
Forged in Shadow is the first book in the thrilling new epic fantasy trilogy by award-winning author, Megan Haskell. Set in the same universe as The Sanyare Chronicles, this is the story of the Great War between the nine faerie realms. If you like sweeping vistas, unexpected heroes, and world-shattering stakes, you’ll love this battle between Shadow and Light.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I’ll stay in this part, as I didn’t finish this one. I DNFed this one early on as I didn’t like the tone or the characters. To me the story and characters felt rather shallow and too easy to really captivate me. When I found myself rolling my eyes instead of looking forward to reading more, I just gave up. I wouldn’t call it YA as others do, as I do read and like a lot of YA, I just didn’t click with this book. So I’ll let my fellow judges tell you more about it.
The cover is excellent and, in giving central place to the sword, certainly fits the book which is all about the forging of a sword and the political and personal machinations that swirl around that ambition. The prose is accurate without any jarring typos or misedits. However, the tone feels very YA – even though the protagonist is 347 years old. There are also some terms used like “skill set,” “karma,” “reaction times” “saccharine” and “intimate relations” that just felt anachronistic. Eg this exchange
“Why would you help us?”
Garamaen grinned. “Karma.”
It sounded like a word he’d just invented himself.
Or this one
“Water for me, if you please,” Belegeth added. “I cannot inhibit my reaction times.”
Nothing like a bit of anachronistic language to throw you right out of a book.
I also like the cover, as I mentioned in my initial review. I feel it fits perfectly for the nature of the story.
I struggled somewhat with the prose as I felt that Haskell had a tendency to over explain things, which then made certain parts feel slow and redundant because they failed to move forward for quite some time:
‘Curuthannor deflated, the adrenaline that had flooded his system in preparation for the fight draining away and leaving him oddly tired for not actually having done anything. But what was he to do? He couldn’t start a fight. That wasn’t his way, especially not for the simple thrill of seeing an elder in full battle mode. He finished fights, he didn’t start them.’
There were scenes such as the one above which tended to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and therefore the narrative wasn’t quite as eloquent as I hoped it would be.
The first time round, I really enjoyed what I read of this one: the worldbuilding and the huge scope of fantasy elements excited me for what was to come.
When I returned to it, I really struggled with Haskell’s writing style. Like Nils said above, there is a great deal of telling, very little showing, and I found the prose to be really rather dry and bare. It’s filled with observational statements that don’t do a great deal, such as:
‘Curuthannor leaned forward against the silky smooth polished stone in front of him. He crossed his arms and rested his forehead in one hand.’
Another big issue I had was the sheer amount of contradictions and inconsistencies, but this is probably more of a plot issue so I’ll discuss this later.
Although these difficulties meant that I was exasperated more with this book than I enjoyed it, there was a promising story of political intrigue beneath it all.
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?)
To be honest the minor characters appealed to me more than the protagonists, for example the Elven Seer Lord Garamaen Sanyaro – who has a gift of foresight. However, it is not so much an exact prophecy as a vague awareness of different possible futures each with different probabilities and knowing the key events at which those branching opportunities shrink down to just to the thread that will actually happen. That appealed to the physicist in me with notions of Schrodinger’s cat, quantum electro dynamics and collapsing wave functions describing the future.
I also liked Tharbatiron the owner of the Crossroads Inn, I think because I like characters with a certain enigmatic feel to them. I like something left to the imagination, a chance to read between the lines even if my reading is inaccurate.
Rothruinil also appealed to me – a kick ass female fire elven warrior, though the fact that her kind of warriors eschewed any kind of armour seemed a bit… unwise. I mean the idea of “who needs armour when you have speed?” didn’t work out too well for British Battlecruisers at Jutland.
With Haskell’s other characters, their motivations and feelings seemed to come out too glibly for my taste, told, rather than shown, and I felt that deprived them of the chance to show depth and nuance. And there are a lot of quite unpleasant characters too, each so hungry to take advantage of each other that I felt hard pressed to decide which one I wanted to win.
Like Theo, I very much liked Rothruinil’s character the most. Her independent and strong-willed attitude actually reminded me of Rayla from The Dragon Prince Netflix series, which I love! Rothruinil could also wield fire, so I was always invested in learning more about her powers, and culture. In fact I wanted more of that.
I LOVE RAYLA
I was left somewhat confused by one particular character, who I was never quite sure whether to root for or to see her as a villain. Princess Faeliel wants to be free from her father, King Othin’s rule; she, like many of the other characters, seeks to find her own place in the world. Whilst I could sympathise with this, I couldn’t help but be extremely annoyed by the way she was quite happy and more than willing to use her feminine wiles and seduction to gain power instead of using some intellect. I personally prefer my female characters to show they have more than just ‘good looks’ to get what they want. It also just felt so out of place in a book that feels as though it’s aimed at a younger audience.
I also felt the dialogue came across stilted. I know that the character’s speech is meant to be formal but many of their voices I felt were not distinct enough and didn’t naturally flow.
More of the same from me I’m afraid! I also really liked Rothruinil, I was so intrigued by her nature and her society. I was confused by ‘sidhs’ and ‘elves’ though, I had no idea if they were supposed to be the same thing or not. And as much as I found myself enjoying Rothruinil’s brief occurrences, I did feel that were she removed from the story, it wouldn’t make any difference to the events in this book. I think her presence is just for the purpose of setting up for a future plot line with the fire sidh siding with Othin.
Like Nils, I was confused by many of the characters, not just Faeliel. I think Haskell was striving for morally ambiguous, but I don’t think the balance was quite right. For the first half of the book, I had the impression that the dark elves were treated unfairly and were being used; but soon they were expressing opinions and doing certain things that seemed to conflict with their earlier intentions.
Good point, Beth. I was left confused by the dark elves too.
I’m glad it wasn’t just me Nils!
I don’t think this is supposed to be a story of good guys and bad guys, I think one could argue that every character displays both sides at one time or another. However, Theo’s point about the characters constantly telling us things instead of showing, and therefore lacking nuance, meant that this attempt at ambiguity fell short. It read too much like a swing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, instead of smoothly encompassing all sides.
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?)
There is good structural conflict in the set up, nine elven realms and a high king determined to be accepted as overlord by all of them. Within this mix there is a need to forge a special sword and the risk of war when a princess decides to act unilaterally to prove herself to an overbearing father. I think this makes for a strong plot engine, but at times the delivery feels a bit mechanical in the way it forces people and events together and ramps up tension. At other times solutions present themselves too simply – need some special iron? well this character we just met happens to have access to loads of the stuff.
I need to be invisible! Where’s that invisibility brooch I always have in my handbag and only just now apparently remembered about.
In particular there is one point where the story requires a very minor character to decide to open a sealed missive sent to their own master from another high ranking elf for reasons that felt illogical and stupid. It was on a level with American Horror movies where you scream at the teenaged monster-fodder “don’t go into the creepy house!” “Don’t separate!”
The other element that jarred for me was the insta-love which seemed to be driven by appearances in ways which felt shallow and at times almost creepy.
“Ah.” Curuthannor’s mind flashed to an image of Lhewen getting dressed.
The action scenes flowed well, but there were parts that delved into exposition in ways that slowed the pace.
I too enjoyed the political intrigue, particularly the mystery behind whether King Othin, or any of the other leaders, were actually trustworthy or not.
I found Curuthannor’s quest to forge the ultimate powerful sword made for an intriguing narrative where we get to explore the world and its variety of inhabitants.
I loved the political machinations, and towards the end of the book I really felt invested in Lhewen’s story particularly. However, I’m with Theo again – there were so many contradictions that felt like plot conveniences. There were so many times I found myself asking, “why has he just done that?” For example,
“Why has he sent his apparently bordering-on-incompetent son to get the Very Important Stuff?”
“Why is the respectful and shy handmaiden suddenly teasing her scary princess boss about being a tart?”
“Why is this barely-competent smith getting involved in a fight between highly trained and experienced guards?”
At one point (location 2028 36% on my kindle) we’re told King Othin can only drain one person at a time, but later (location 3069 55% on my kindle) we’re told he can drain multiple lives… This is just one example of some of the contradictions (what’s the deal with the charms? A strong enchantment needs surface area, but the enchanted ear cuff is a delicate filigree whose enchantment lasts indefinitely?). I may be coming across pedantic, but I found myself struggling to be swept along by the story as these questions constantly interrupted my immersion.
It’s such a shame, I think the plot itself would have worked much better if these issues could be smoothed out with a strong edit. It did also feel like a great deal of the plot hinged on one very minor detail – I think Curuthannor mentioning that the dark elves’ iron was superior to any other was the domino that fell and set off a wave of events… shame Sanyaro didn’t intervene at that point!
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
The idea of interconnected elven realms works well. There are some quite strong Norse overtones with references to a world tree and the fact that High King Othin (sounds a bit like Odin) has a couple of spying ravens.
Ooh well spotted, Theo. I hadn’t made that connection!
I liked the idea of physical limits on charms – that is a piece of jewellery needed a certain surface area to hold enchantments of significant complexity. Haskell draws on many forms of elven myth, with recognisable types of drow, fae, sidhe and others.
There were some quite contemporary economic references with tariffs on trade goods being a frequently mentioned issue, though the princess stopped short of actually describing her negotiating offer as a Free Trade Agreement.
I liked the delicate negotiations and attention to protocol that went into arranging a meeting between rival elven kings. It reminded me of the Field of Cloth of Gold – where Henry VIII of England met Francis I of France and certainly that took a great deal of preparation and enough consideration of etiquette to occupy dozens of courtiers.
There is also an incident with a ruffle sleeved shirt where much is made of the absurdity of the garment which reminded me of Mark Darcy’s christmas jumper in Bridget Jones’ Diary. However, Haskell seemed to be playing that situation straight rather than for laughs.
I was most compelled by the world-building. Haskell’s world is filled with elves, humans, wyrms which were described as ‘mutated dragons’, leprechauns and dwarves. There was heavy use of magic, particularly with jewellery which held powers such as to turn the wearer invisible. I did feel that these aspects needed a bit more depth, but overall I loved that this book clearly celebrated it’s fantastical elements.
The worldbuilding is absolutely the strength of this book, both in terms of (like Nils said) the sheer scope of fantastic elements, but also the details of the various societies (like Theo pointed out). I loved the etiquette plays, the messenger who remained bowed and walked backwards out of the King’s presence. I loved the fire sidhe’s welcome dance and their very different traditions.
I felt the magic system needed some kind of boundary. I absolutely loved the notion of these different types of elves having a different kind of magic. I was a little confused by how the occasional rogue elf fitted in to this structure – like Curuthannor’s ability to recognise when magic is being used. I like a magic system where we don’t always know the rules, but in this instance there seems to be rules (for example around what kind of things can be enchanted, and what kind of elves can do what kinds of magic) – but then at other times there seemed to be no rules. Unfortunately, this left me feeling like a lot of the time, the magic system was more plot convenience than anything else.
I also really struggled with the idea that the different realms worked on different time scales. So, for example (because at no point are we told the exact difference) one day in the dark realm would be three in the light realm. At first, I thought this quite a novel idea. However, as the story progressed, there didn’t seem to be a consistency to it, and I found myself getting very confused by how much time had or hadn’t passed. By the end, I had to wonder why Haskell had decided to include this complication.
Quotations that resonated with you
This line tickled me with its deadpan delivery – though that might just be my take on it.
“Do not antagonise the trolls.”
I also liked this description of a disorientating walk through the Black Castle
“With few straight lines and fewer stairs, she felt like she was walking through the innards of a giant beast.”
I enjoyed the chapter where the sword was being forged.
‘The crackle of energy built around the sacred circle. The gods were listening, the magics were flowing, and the sword would own its purpose.’
This was a pleasant read in an interesting world of conflicting powers and people. However, I would have liked more depth in the plot and characters which both at times seemed a little too simplistic and inconsistent. Those who fell in love seemed overly fixated on physical appearances and the woes they wrestled with were telegraphed too obviously through expository internal reveries.
Forged in Shadow revels in the realms of elves, magical swords and political manoeuvres which is both intriguing and highly imaginative. I feel with some more depth, and further developed nuanced characters this would have captivated me more.
Although by the last 20% or so I did find myself eager to read what would happen next, there were so many points that let this one down for me. If you’re a reader happy not to question too much into what you’re reading, then this fantastical world of fairy realms and twisty politics could absolutely sweep you away. It is very much the start of a series, with much being left open for the next book, rather than a standalone story.
***Commiserations to Megan Haskell and Forged in Shadow.***
We’re now down to three semi-finalists. Check back TOMORROW for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 6 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 6, 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.
Stay tuned over the next few days as we review our remaining semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!), and check out our introduction to round 1!