SHADOW OF A DEAD GOD by Patrick Samphire (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
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In the 1970s and 80s TV of my youth, The Rockford Files starring James Garner was one of my favourite shows.
I couldn’t tell you the plot of a single show, but there was an enduring appeal to the down at heel private detective living in a trailer and eking out an existence from one job to the next, always on the border of legality.
The hard boiled private eye has been a compelling sub-genre since the days of Raymond Chandler. However, the glory of speculative fiction in general, and fantasy fiction in particular, is its Borg-like ability to assimilate other genres and augment them with its own motifs of magic and alien world building. Genre boundaries – as I have often been told recently – are porous things.
So why not a murder mystery in a fantasy setting?
Read on to find out what our team made of Patrick Samphire’s puzzling tale.
Shadow of a Dead God
It was only supposed to be one little job – a simple curse-breaking for Mennik Thorn to pay back a favor to his oldest friend. But then it all blew up in his face. Now he’s been framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
So how is a second-rate mage, broke, traumatized, and with a habit of annoying the wrong people supposed to prove his innocence when everyone believes he’s guilty?
Mennik has no choice if he wants to get out of this: he is going to have to throw himself into the corrupt world of the city’s high mages, a world he fled years ago. Faced by supernatural beasts, the mage-killing Ash Guard, and a ruthless, unknown adversary, it’s going to take every trick Mennik can summon just to keep him and his friend alive.
But a new, dark power is rising in Agatos, and all that stands in its way is one damaged mage…
[Editor Note: Since compiling this review, the book now has a new cover (below)]
Nils: I think the cover is really effective. I like the cloaked figure with his back to us, staring upon the city. It’s mysterious, dark and quite enticing. I recently learned that Samphire created this cover himself, which I’d have never have guessed. It’s really well done.
Beth: On the face of it, you may think oh, cliché cloaked figure – and this actually gets brought up by the protagonist in the story, so I ended up loving this feature. I love how clear the cover is in its simplicity.
Theo: I don’t tend to get too worked up about covers, but I do find the simple two tone colour contrast in this one appealing. It draws the eye.
Filip: It’s an effective cover, one that sets up a mood that forecasts the fantasy noir elements of Shadow. It gave me an “in” to the city of Agatos, which serves as the sprawling metropolitan set piece to the entirety of Mennik “Nik” Thorn’s misadventures.
Nils: In the opening chapters we dive into a first person narration by our main protagonist Nik, who we learn is a freelance mage for hire. He is tasked with finding ghosts for the grossly rich Sunstone family, and pretty much feels resentful about this. I immediately loved Nik’s narrative voice, the tone is full of cynicism, humour and a sense of weariness. I very much felt compelled to read on from the very onset.
When I did read further I was delighted to see detailed world-building, which is always quite important to me. Within a few pages we are presented with some culture, some knowledge of the gods, and vivid city-life descriptions.
“The stink of the cart joined with the rich salt smell of drying seaweed and the stench of tanneries, soap makers, and sewage to give that signature smell of the city of Agatos.”
This all worked to immerse me into Samphire’s world, and pulled at my intrigue to discover so much more.
One aspect I truly loved were the touches of humour. At first these made me lightly chuckle but as the book went on I had many occasions of laughing out loud! Especially once we are introduced to characters such as Benny and Sereh, who I’ll discuss more in the next section. However, here’s an example of Nik’s easy-going, sarcastic, and conversational narration:
“There were three ways to make a lot of money in Agatos: politics, crime, and commerce, although some would argue they were the same thing.”
Beth: I absolutely love a first-person narrative, so this was immediately a big tick for me, and I found I’d flown through the opening pages before realising. Samphire’s writing had such an ease about it, it flowed nicely with nothing about the prose that jarred or caused any break in verisimilitude. Like Nils, I particularly loved the subtlety of the world building, the way in which Samphire was able to weave in aspects of his society in such a way that the reader is able to piece together the rest for themselves. For example:
I shook my head. “I have no idea how you’ve avoided the executioner’s spear this long.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t slow down enough to write notes as I read this one, instead devouring it as quickly as I could, only waiting for Nils to catch up so I could message her about certain parts.
Nils: Haha, we laughed at so many quotes together!!
Beth: I laughed out loud at a number of instances throughout the book, there was one particular twist that I did not see coming and it made me gasp aloud – in fact, there was a lot about this story that kept me guessing – and I loved the occasional little nods to Pratchett. The following made me immediately think of Nanny and one of her favourite songs:
“I had brought my mage’s rod with me, too. It was about four feet long, made of solid walnut wood, and had a solid lump of obsidian on the end.”
Theo: I agree the first person narrative voice is distinctive and appealing with flashes of humour that also bleed in the worldbuilding – like the reference to executioner’s spear that Beth picked up on, as opposed to hangman’s noose.
Julia: I’m late to the party, as this was my last finalist to finish! So much has been said already, so I’ll keep my input on the short side.
I knew early on that I would like Shadow of a Dead God, as the tone and voice of the story grabbed me early on! I love a sarcastic and witty main character, and having them be the underdog and not the heavy hitter is a double plus for me!
Obviously humour is hit and miss, so either you’ll enjoy the banter and tone, or you’ll think it is really annoying. I heartily recommend reading a sample, and you’ll know right away if this is your cup of tea.
As comparison, so you know what to expect: It felt a bit like a secondary world, less powerful Harry Dresden – in a good way, not in a copycat kind of way!
Filip: Shadow of a Dead God, with its bedraggled protagonist and excellently written first-person narrative, played on my nostalgia from the first line. The obvious comparison you might make is with Harry Dresden, and like Julia, you’d be on the money, but I found myself thinking about Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series–and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay to any urban fantasy in a secondary world.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Nils: Did I have any favourite characters? Beth is it ok if I say all of them?!
Beth: Nods sagely in an editor-like fashion. ABSOLUTELY.
Nils: In all seriousness my heart immediately fell for this fantastic trio – Nik, Benny and Sereh. I find myself drawn to oddball characters, and this certainly applied to these three. I felt much sympathy for Nik as everything which could go wrong, did go wrong for him. I laughed at Benny’s idiotic antics and I absolutely adored the way Sereh, an eleven year old girl with an uncanny slightly psychotic nature, unnerved them both.
‘My pulse was pounding like a drum. This kid was going to be the end of me.
“Where did you come from?”
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Sereh kept looking up at me with a slight smile. I took an unconscious step back.’
The dynamics between the characters were so well written, Samphire presented them in a comical way, but he also showed a strong relationship between them. They were each other’s family and they would stop at nothing to protect one another.
Beth: Found family for the WIN.
Nils: Exactly, Beth!!
I also feel that each character was distinct, with their own quirks and their own roles to play. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing a great balance between female and male characters, and I became quite intrigued by Nik’s sister, Mica, and the Captain of the Ash Guard, Gale. I’m invested enough to want to read more books featuring all these characters and see how each of them develop further.
Beth: I think character portrayal is absolutely the strongest aspect of this book. Sereh was quite possibly my favourite, gotta love a child psychopath – but importantly, she also had her moment of vulnerability, where we’re reminded that she is just a child. These characters often showed themselves to be more than just their more obvious roles.
Another strength was that all the characters were distinct. Even the secondary characters, ones who might only turn up for half a page throughout the whole book; they very much gave the impression that Nik had intruded upon them and their story, and not that they were there to support his. This impression was most probably founded upon the fact that everyone always seems pissed off to see Nik…
Theo: Nik carries the story very well as a downtrodden oft-beaten never quite good enough kind of hero. <open cricketing analogy> The kind of bits and pieces player in a cricket side, not the fantastic all-rounder, the stalwart opener, the fiery fast bowler, or the mesmerising spinner, Nik is the one who can do a bit of quite a few things and just makes the most of what he’s got <close cricketing analogy>
Filip: …wot’s cricket?
Beth: The most tedious of sports. I think Theo’s analogy can also be summed up as Jack of all trades, Master of none.
Theo: I liked Sereh and Benny too. Sereh had a touch of the Aryas about her and the found family theme certainly worked well. I was less convinced by Mica and Gale who seemed more to be auditioning for a role in future episodes of the series than making a definite impression here. I struggled to see why Gale would cut Nik quite so much slack despite his eyes often being drawn to how well her uniform fitted, while Mica felt a bit like she was the ace card waiting to be played – and still waiting.
Beth: I quite like that Gale was suffering from this odd attraction to Nik; who in turn did everything unconsciously possible to sabotage his chances with her. I found it poignantly human.
Filip: I thought the way Mica was used across the novel was masterfully done, and showed great care on Samphire’s part. “Measured” comes to mind – there’s a way about the author’s writing that shows such an attention to character, and the way I read Mica fell within the bounds of what I expected of her portrayal. Of the characters I’m excited to see in the future (and you better believe I’m eager to read the sequel!) she’s the one I can’t wait to see developed further.
Sereh is the kind of eleven-year-old I used to hang around when I myself was at that age – great companions for both post-communist Eastern European states and magical cities. She’s a gem of a character, and I appreciate the author making her multifaceted rather than a one-note mini-badass. That’s a good choice of word for many of these characters – “multifaceted”. A few are teased out, woven into the mosaic of the city as unshakable presences but not shown – the Countess, the Wren. Others, my fellow judges have written about; the found family aspect is there in the story and that appealed to me as much as it did to Beth and Nils.
Julia: I agree with everyone here – I loved the “friendship can be much stronger than family” bond, and the no romance needed in this one!
Beth: Yes Julia! That’s exactly the message that came across, and I think that’s why I connected to the story so well, because I could relate to this so much.
Julia: A few times the characters depth felt a tiny bit shallow, and the frequently used “mate” annoyed me a little bit.
Beth: That might be a British thing Julia – if you can get it over there, watch the BBC’s Line Of Duty…
Julia: But overall I did really care for them, especially for Nick and the tiny 11 year old murderball called Sereh! That was one of the most unique characters I ever read. Benny I thought got cut a bit short and felt less three dimensional than even some side characters. I also especially enjoyed a lot of female characters being in very powerful positions here!
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Nils: As this book centres around a series of murders that Nik and Benny are wrongly accused of committing, I won’t be giving any more plot details other than that because… spoilers. What I will say though, is this book is so entertaining. Throughout, the mystery kept me hooked and the twists and turns were so unpredictable, I was never quite certain who the culprit behind it all would be.
The plot was fairly fast paced, with plenty of action and humour to keep me engrossed. In fact I was so desperate to find out what was going to happen at the end I was reading a little too fast and had to go back and reread chapters to fully take everything in.
Beth: I’m with Nils, this was absolutely an entertaining book. Perhaps by the end it didn’t turn out as complicated as what I thought it might, which was actually something of a relief. This wasn’t a plot that tried too hard. It was the perfect balance of unsolvable-mystery and satisfying outcomes. There were one or two things that I’m not sure if I’d missed the explanation of, or if they were deliberately left unexplained, but rather than being frustrating, they were minor enough that instead they were a fun point of discussion and theorising for me and Nils at the end.
The pace didn’t slow down once. Nik is constantly on the move, but more importantly our perspective is; a first-person narrative will certainly help with that, but we were never coming to any aspect of the story after the fact or after the event, and that made for such a page burning pace. It never felt rushed – I just didn’t want to ever put it down.
Theo: As a murder mystery in a fantasy setting this is a mash up of two of my three favourite genres, all it needed for the hat-trick was to be set on a Napoleonic era warship in the style of Patrick O’Brian. (Which reminds me I must read R.J.Barker’s Boneship series). So Samphire’s ticking the right boxes for me. In voice and plot it is very much a Chandleresque hardboiled noir style thriller with the protagonist caught very much in the middle.
Like Chandler, the plot is quite organic and I sensed a kind of illusionist’s prestidigitation to the baffling and colourful weave of plot threads.
I have to say I don’t think things were bound as tightly as one might expect from a conventional pure mystery. If subjected to too close an examination I suspect the reader might wonder at the realism of the contortions of motive, means and opportunity. Ah this is fantasy I hear you say, but just like fundamental physics, there are some fundamental laws of people/crime that fantasy authors trifle with at their peril. Which is not to say this is all bad, just that the plot serves as the means to demonstrate the chaos and magic of Nik and his world, rather than being an intrinsically satisfying ludic puzzle in its own right. In particular, the mystery conventionally finishes with a revelatory twist in the denouement, while Samphire’s final puzzle is more along the lines of “how on earth are they going to survive this?”
Filip: Well said, Theo! As a Chandler nut myself, I appreciate you throwing the old man of hard-boiled noir a bone; and that last question of Theo’s cuts well and true to the bone (do novels have bones, anyway?). I wouldn’t equivocate the tone of the novel to Chandler’s but the plotting certainly follows many familiar conventions of the genre defined by him; humour and narration reminded me more of the recent works of K.J. Parker (also known as Tom Holt). Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City, for example, shares with Shadow the tone of a speaker whose circumstances are so hopeless that every path forward seems to invite fresh calamity; yet like Parker, Samphire understands what elements to introduce at just the right time to make for a good story–and which ones to hold back. When the time comes that you ask, “How on earth are they going to survive this?” you’ll be invested enough to practically burn through the remaining pages. If that’s not a good plot structure, I don’t know what is.
Julia: As with the characters, I felt a few times the plot grew a bit thin. Some times common sense goes out the window, because stupid decisions make for a way better story! So wheeee, here we go, confronting things and people way above our paygrade! But I didn’t mind that much, as it was fast paced and intriguing enough to keep me almost sprinting through the story! The murder mystery part also could have been a little bit smoother overall, but was still enjoyable.
This one is incredibly easy to follow, and really pulls you from your couch and throws you in a completely new city and adventure! At times little bits felt a tiny bit repetitive, but also not nearly enough to really grate on me, just little bits I noticed on the side-line. The same goes for a few typos – yes they were there, but I was so immersed into the book, I hardly even remembered them one sentence later.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Nils: I think Samphire has created a wonderfully unique magic system and world here that’s full of magic and well… quite a bit of mayhem too! I loved the concept of when a god dies their ashes or their remains leak raw magic into the world, and those who could sense that magic and use it were mages.
Beth: Yes! I loved this explanation behind a magic system too!
Nils: Nik, our main protagonist is a mage as I have mentioned, but as we come to learn, he is perhaps not as proficient as his sister, Mica. Therefore during the early chapters we learn much about Nik’s abilities, as he becomes forced to put his skills to the test. I particularly enjoyed the way Samphire weaves the magic system into the story without giving us large sections of info-dumping but also giving us enough details to keep us satisfied. For example Samphire sets clear limitations to a Nik’s powers;
“When we slept, we absorbed the raw magic around us, and it helped us heal. Unfortunately, whilst any cuts and bruises I got healed fast, and even broken bones knitted, that was as far as it went for me. When it came to damaged tendons and ligaments, I was no better off than anyone else.”
Beth: I can attest to those being an absolute bitch to heal.
There are also different sectors of religion in the lands of Agatos, for example many worship Belethea, the goddess of bees, or Sharshak, the god of the sun. They each have their own set of powers, such as Sharshak could neutralise the other Gods’ powers. This is how The Ash Guard came into being, those who could use the Ash of Sharshak were able to neutralise other mages’ powers, which was a fantastic way of again setting limitations, and at policing mages so none could become all too powerful.
There was also rivalling high mages, which is where the mayhem comes in as Nik gets himself caught up in their schemes. Towards the end events get quite… chaotic, and in turn so does Nik’s use of magic. Myself and Beth particularly loved the ‘fucksthat’ spell!
Beth: Ha! Yes, the fucksthat spell! That’s exactly the kind of humour I love. Very similar to Pratchett’s humour – “the only forest in the whole universe to be called — in the local language — Your Finger You Fool, which was the literal meaning of the word Skund.” (The Light Fantastic).
Nils: I really need to read Pratchett!
Beth: We don’t ever leave the city of Agatos, and yet Samphire’s world building is so very convincing and detailed that I didn’t feel it lacked any scope because of this. It felt very much that we inhabited a real world with centuries of well-established history and tradition represented through characters’ mannerisms and actions. The characters felt like products of their environment, which is a sure sign of excellent world building.
Filip: Well said, Beth! Like some of my favourite wonky-ass novels, Shadow of a Dead God breathes life into the city of Agatos in such a way it feels an indispensable part of the cast as well as the setting.
Theo: While there are plenty of city state based fantasy novels and the dead gods leaking magic is a theme I have seen in Luke Scull’s debut The Grim Company trilogy, the standout innovation of Samphire’s book for me is the Ash Guard. The notion of a magic deadening substance that levels the playing field of law enforcement in a world of fearsome mages is brilliant.
Filip: To me, the Ash recalled Steven Erikson’s otataral, a reddish bronze ore which also negated most types of magic, its dust often used to quench weapons in and even absorb through skin. Both are really, really cool!
Theo: There are some questions, like – if it is extremely precious and works just as well carried in a bag as smeared all over your face, then why would you ever do the latter rather than the former? I think there, as elsewhere in the book Samphire went for imagery over logic, but it is (to quote Miranda Hart’s sitcom mother) “such fun.”
Filip: A very fine question you’ve brought up, Theo. Perhaps it’s a matter of security, or efficiency? Dust smeared over one’s face is impossible to steal, whereas Dust kept in a pouch…Or perhaps the potency is greater? Ah, how seductive it is to theorycraft away! Either way, I’ve enough confidence after reading Shadow to suspect Samphire might provide at least some answers in the sequels.
Julia: All that was said above. A good and unique new setting, a world that felt deep and with plenty of lore, and not just like a thin backdrop. It made me perfectly happy!
Quotations that resonated with you
Nils: I think you can tell I loved the humour in this book, so here’s a quote which still makes me laugh out loud.
“He popped the claw into his mouth and swallowed.
I just had time to shout, “For fuck’s sake, Benny!” before everything happened at once.”
Beth: That really made me laugh, that moment of “fuck, what do I do with this??” and irrationally sticking it in your mouth. It’s the kind of thing I’d do *face palm*
Nils: Haha! I see I’m going to have to keep my eye on you Beth! Who eats a bear claw?!
Beth: My clothes never have pockets so the amount of times I’ve used either my mouth or my bra to carry or hold something is frankly unacceptable.
Having lived in a pub, and worked in retail, I loved and empathised with the character of Dumonoc the barman:
“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered, loud enough to be heard.
I didn’t take it personally. Dumonoc hated all his customers equally.
Theo: Oh yes, Dumonoc’s bar was another lovely Samphire subversion – the opposite of Cheers – the bar where everyone knows your name, this was a place where you’d always be told to fuck off.
Beth: As fun and entertaining as this book is, there was plenty that also gave me pause for thought:
“That was one of the reasons I didn’t like wearing my mage’s cloak; it opened too many doors. What kind of city must we be where a man or woman in a black cloak could just walk into a gaol or into the home of a grieving family and no one even thought of saying no? What was it? Fear? A misplaced sense of respect? Habit? Whichever, it wasn’t healthy.”
Theo: There were lots of humorous lines – here’s a selection of my kindle noted lols
“We could be executed together. It would be the kind of thing poets would love, the bastards.”
“Jusip Broom was an oil slick of a man. He had been known to kill seabirds at half a mile with just the force of his personality.”
“Benny eyed the front door. Benny wasn’t really a front door kind of person. He was more jimmied windows, picked side entrances, and lifted tiles. Using the main door was a professional affront.”
“Why did everyone who wanted to pass on a message feel the need to knock me senseless first? I was a nice guy. I would listen. This communication via thug was a new Agatos tradition I wasn’t on board with.”
“I took another glance in the mirror. Even I wouldn’t hire me looking like this, and I wasn’t picky.”
But just to echo Beth’s point, there are some pithy thought provoking reflections inbetween the self-deprecating humour. Like this one
“In my job, I had to be clear about my lines, because one step led to another, and soon you couldn’t even see the lines you’d left behind you.”
Nils: I feel that Shadow of a Dead God is a true hidden gem, I was not expecting a book full of heart and humour, but I’m so thrilled that I got one. I honestly can’t think of anything that I didn’t like, and actually I’d have quite liked it to have been longer because when I reached the end, I felt sad it was over. Suffice to say I’m very much looking forward to the next book.
Beth: I couldn’t think of any negatives. Not one. I enjoyed the story so thoroughly, I thought it such a great balance of humour and fun but also intrigue and a clever story. Nils has hit the nail on the head, this is absolutely a hidden gem and I have loved it. I needed the sequel yesterday. I really hope there’s a sequel because I can’t wait to see what trouble Nik gets into next.
Theo: I enjoyed this, it’s a fun read that rattles along at a good pace with some interesting characters and trope-subverting world building. For me the weaknesses lay in the scattered illogicalities in the plot and some of the world building where those elements lost out a little to the fizz-bang showmanship of “let’s blow shit up” school of storytelling. Also – in its favour though, is the fact that it is a genuine standalone, a completed mystery with the potential for further mysteries with the same cast in the same world.
Beth: Oh excellent point Theo! The same can’t be said for many of this year’s finalists.
Julia: I loved this overall. It was a fun and very entertaining romp, and yet had enough depth to it to really stick with me.
A good mix of fantasy, mystery, banter, humour, sarcasm and plenty of “Fuck this, I’ve no idea what to do, so I’ll just go and make a mess, better than doing nothing!”
Filip: Two words: LOVED IT.
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 1st in the Hive’s Finalist List.