SHADOWS OF IVORY – by T.L. Greylock and Bryce O’Connor (SPFBO 7 Semi-finalist review)
Two books to go – which will be our finalist?
Just two of our six excellent semi-finalists are left in the running for our SPFBO-7 Finalist nomination.
Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson and
Shadows of Ivory by T.L. Greylock and Bryce O’Connor
Today we will start by posting separate reviews for both books (Shadows of Ivory at 3.00 pm BST Illborn at 3.15 pm BST) so that they both get their moment in the spotlight.
Then, at 4.00 pm BST today we will post the announcement of which one we selected as our finalist. It was close.
In the meantime though, please enjoy the judges’ thoughts on Shadows of Ivory.
T.L. Greylock and Bryce O’Connor
An undying king. A relic of rune-carved bronze and ivory flames. A war for powers only a god could fathom.
In the centuries since rising up against a cruel, twisted dynasty, the Seven Cities have done much to move past their horrid histories, the memories of ancient monarchs who once fed on the life and blood of their own people. Those with a talent for magic are no longer hounded and slain. The lands beyond the Cities are safe, spared the atrocities the Alescuans once wrought upon them. For 300 years, there has been peace.
Then Eska de Caraval, head of the prestigious Firenzia Company, finds herself framed for murder.
Soon hunted for the strange bronze disc she most certainly did not steal, Eska is forced to pit both wit and blade against all manner of adversaries who would eagerly see her dead. An assassin in the shadows. A monster in the deep. A rival looking to burn her alive. From sword and fang and flame Eska must defend herself, struggling all the while to prove her innocence and unravel the mysteries of a dangerous artifact.
But unbeknownst to Eska and her enemies, the cruelest of those tyrants of old is stirring in his grave.
The cover is well designed and delivered, though I do have something of a fondness for menacing skeletal figures – and this one with drawn swords and rich armour certainly catches the eye. However, I guess my reservation would be – having now finished the book – which character in the book does the cover depict? The answer, I think, is none – and I guess I will come back to that with comments on the plot. The book with its interesting and well delivered digressions, is the opening volume in a series, and as such doesn’t seem to have quite reached its cover by the time we’ve reached the end of the book.
The prose is generally a strength, though that strength shows itself to best effect in some of the descriptive passages of place and setting. The book is full of lush comfortable descriptions of places even when the places themselves may be far from lush or comfortable. The prose does at times drift into long convoluted sentences – with a whole paragraph turning out to have just one full stop. There are also some thematic digressions of a sentence or two cropping up in the middle of a paragraph before the prose returns to the point in hand. Both these traits had me occasionally having to reread sections just to be sure I had got the sense of it.
The novel is also structurally innovative in a couple of ways. There is the way that each chapter has, as an opening epigram, a sentence/quote from within the chapter which – free of its context – acts as a little tease to draw you into the chapter. There are also the “interludes” which appear between some chapters. These offer fragments of back story, world building or context delivered in the form of letters, reports, logs or memories – the interlude highlighting the dangers in consuming harrowroot was one that particularly caught me eye, in that gives the reader an understanding of the risks the protagonist is taking with her harrowroot habit.
There is tendency, however, to draw a veil over the most tumultuous scenes. There are occasions where we leave a set of characters at a cliff hanger and then the next scene is after the climax has been resolved and quite a lot of interesting stuff musty have happened in between which is briefly covered in reported speech. Sometimes it feels as though protagonist and reader have both been teleported from calamity to calmer waters, possibly in the interests of economy, or in the hurry to move the story on to start climbing the next narrative peak.
I absolutely loved this book! It is very well-written, with excellent characters. I definitely struggled to stop reading to take care of boring tasks such as sleeping or working.
I was particularly delighted by the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, although sometimes I couldn’t stop myself skimming ahead for context, before coming back and reading the chapter properly.
The matt cover of this novel is gorgeous. It depicts a menace looking, armored skeleton holding swords and mysterious columns of a fallen city in the background. The colors are mainly held in greys of different shades, and golden hues for the skull, amulet and the swords, as well as a partial of the great font chosen for the title. The book is heavy, not as floppy, and has a firm feel in hand. The novel is structured in three parts and offers many interludes to feed into the plot as a sideline and background as well as chapter titles in italic. Everything is very professional.
I found the prose to be very engaging and I read the novel twice. Once in physical form and once as an audiobook, narrated by the amazing Kate Reading. I did find myself lost at the latter at times, as I mixed up the actions of two main characters, Eska and Manon.
I was satisfied with the way the book was edited and I think it offered a great range in style to find a place in it. Cliffhangers, flashbacks, letters etc, it all was part of this great read. Though I share Calvin and Theo’s thoughts on the skeleton in the cover. It is very striking, but that isn’t the general feel I had of the novel and the skeleton may be misrepresenting.
The cover is certainly striking. It grabs your attention with the skeletal figure and the typesetting only adds to the professional feel. These production values continue into the story itself. The prose is smooth and flows well, at times really shining with place descriptions. The book is also incredibly well-edited. In my opinion, this book is the best edited and has the smoothest prose out of any book in our group.
Having said that, I have to agree with Theo that, while the cover art is striking, as far as I could tell it really has nothing to do with the story. Or, at least, its connection to the story this book tells is tangential at best. I also think the cover gives the wrong idea about the book. The skeletal figure and muted color palette had me expecting a dark story, but the story wasn’t particularly dark. In fact, this has the feel of classic adventure fantasy, in some ways, but with some clever twists. By the end, things are definitely trending toward world-changing events that we expect in epic fantasy, but–again–the story and world feel much less grim than the cover leads one to believe.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
We have two principal protagonists in competing archaeologists Eska, privileged by birth and position, versus Manon destitute and desperate. We also delve into the perspective of Albus the bookish scholar come librarian who feels like a sort of younger version of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like all good protagonists they have their weaknesses – Eska’s increasing dependence on harrowroot, Manon’s pulling illegally on the threads of her carrier magic, and Albus struggling against seasickness and naivite. They are all three of them credibly drawn and compelling individuals.
We also meet an interesting range of side characters, brothers, lovers and business associates of our central trio. An interesting range of titles, more than names, helps keep the individuals separate in the reader’s mind, be it The Iron Baron, or Regatta Master of Lake Delo.
There is an interesting range of characters throughout the book, and I’m quite fond of them all. They are all well developed, and their strengths, weaknesses and passions shine throughout the whole story.
I particularly liked Eska and Albus’ friendship, it was a refreshing change to see a relationship that doesn’t appear to be heading towards romance. While I am a fan of romance, I would love to see more mixed gender platonic relationships – they’re important too!
I am a big fan of Eska, the smart archaeologist who has had the means and education to pursue her interests. She is much less fallible then Manon, the rival archaeologist, who doesn’t have enough coin in her pocket to make a living and sometimes relies on desperate decisions to stay afloat. As much as I admired Eska, I did like Manon quite a bit as well, but I generally enjoy underdog characters. As Calvin is pointing out, the two of them have a different view of each other, and it is very clear that Eska’s upbringing has taught her to think differently. I enjoyed how she stands up for her crew, even if she can’t be sure of their true intentions. Also, she is of a very forgiving nature. Another favorite of mine is Albus, the scholar librarian and Eska’s friend since their youth. As a duo, they know each other so well that Eska can think in terms of “What would Albus do? Or what is he intending to say with this message?” Albus also exhibits these certain traits book lovers can relate to and enjoy. He is incredibly smart and easy to visualize. Spending time in his library or study was a treat and academia feel I enjoy in novels.
Like I had mentioned before, the only trouble I had with the audiobook was that I sometimes lost track of Eska’s character and that of Manon. They both had many encounters in this intrigue of politics and family feud, combined with adventures, it just required extra attention I thought I gave it while listening, but found myself mixing up the narratives at times as it turned out.
Plenty of great side characters good and bad in terms of their intentions. Overall, it was so well fleshed out with an abundance of cast that gave many shining moments to several. Very well done. Many to root for and some to figure out.
By far my favorite character here was Eska. It isn’t often that an archaeologist ends up as the main character of a fantasy novel. What’s more, Eska isn’t your run of the mill Indiana Jones sort of archaeology cum adventurer, in fact, in many ways she’s the anti-Indiana Jones. As plenty of others want to loot other countries of their artefacts, Eska is far more interested in learning about the cultures that gave rise to those artefacts. It makes for interesting tension within the story. More than this, however, Eska is so much fun to read because while she’s incredibly passionate and knowledgeable, she’s also quite skilled. No training montages here, Eska is already a very capable character who can create believably competent plans on the fly. Of course, Eska has her weaknesses as well, chief among them a growing dependence on harrowroot and her confidence–one of her great strengths–ends up inverted here, since she is so certain she knows what she is doing with it. The complexity of her character really is wonderful.
Albus is your typically bookish librarian, and it took me a little while to get into his character. In many ways he serves as a foil for Eska. While she is worldly-wise, Albus is anything but. They both share a love of ancient cultures and of learning, but while Eska is a globe-trotting adventurer, Albus sits in a library reading books. Until, of course, he doesn’t. In fact, Albus ends up being the perspective through which we most clearly see the larger world and the epic stakes that the series will eventually touch on. While I initially found him a little tropey, as he grew as a character he also grew on me. By the end of the book, I was looking forward to his chapters as much as Eska’s.
Then, of course, there is Manon. If Albus is Eska’s friend, then Manon is her rival–except, she’s not truly in the same league. She’s sort of like the rival who thinks she’s a rival, while Eska doesn’t necessarily see her in the same light. I have mixed feelings about Manon and her chapters. I think she’s well drawn as a character, but she was the character I personally connected with the least. I think that’s mostly down to personal preferences though, so your mileage may vary quite a bit.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
This is where I struggled a bit with this book. I am not sure if that is in part down to the dual authorship. Depending on how the work is divided between the two of them, paired writers can pull a book in different directions generating dizzying shifts in plot. This is a very rich and delicious story, but it feels a bit as if our twin cooks had approached it more with enthusiasm for the quality of ingredients than a respect for the precision of quantities in the recipe. Or to put it more simply, the plot at times felt confusing and inconsistent.
The bones of the story are strong, various groups are seeking to recover powerful artefacts from an overthrown dynasty of hideously cruel magic using rulers (carriers). These artefacts are hidden in puzzle containers as varied as Faberge eggs and as widely scattered as Horcruxes. However, the story’s revelling in rivalry, diplomacy, politicking and love interest leaves that skeleton buried deep beneath layers of digression and distraction. It also means that the story lacks a certain closure as – although I have a suspicion about where the cover image character may come from, we don’t yet get to see it.
I really enjoyed all the various plot strands, and wasn’t particularly bothered by the meandering, or the lack of resolution in some threads. I think it was still a cohesive whole, and the characters and world definitely kept me interested in sections where the plot was a little thin on the ground. It definitely left me wanting the next book immediately (no pressure, but also please give).
One aspect of the plot that had me thinking the most was the exploration of when or if it’s morally or ethically right to recover and remove artefacts and keep them in museums and the like. This is something that comes up regularly around the world – countries and cultures wanting pieces of their history returned to them, and this is something Eska is confronted by for the first time.
I agree with Theo and Calvin in terms of the plot. There was much going on to keep it interesting, but it led to a bit of a fractured plotline. What my idea was initially after setting the hook, continued apart with other dynamics of individual characters, history and politics to keep track of, it washed the main idea of the retrieval of artefacts a bit away. I thought about this a lot as I was reading, and I appreciate the splendor of injected intrigue it added. What gets lost a bit for me in such a case is the depth of any one, two or three points to focus on. The storylines weren’t clearly divided and shifted quite often, another reason I read it twice. I just didn’t want to miss anything and be certain everything clicked with me. How it resonated in the end is that it didn’t create the ultimate “aha” moment, but I was still captivated at everything put into this novel.
I share some of Theo’s thoughts on the plot of this book. There was plenty to keep me reading and engaged. I loved the politicking and diplomacy, and I felt like the pacing was very good throughout–there weren’t times when I really wanted to stop reading or set the book down for anything other than typical breaks to eat and sleep. For me, it’s less that the plot was confusing and more that the book had a plot in only the loosest sense. What I mean by that is this: we’re getting the beginning of a much broader story, and there is no real conclusion to this novel. In fact, the inciting incident or “hook” for the story is pretty much discarded by 25% in and doesn’t have much impact on the story (aside from one small link) until the very ending of the story, when it gets wrapped up fairly nicely before the focus shifts back to what will be, I believe, the larger story of the series. I’m a little conflicted on how I feel about this. I really enjoyed the book, and I’m willing to have plenty of unresolved plot threads in a big epic, multi-book fantasy series like this. However, I also prefer for the first book to at least have somewhat of a structure on its own, even if we don’t get much resolution. This one almost feels like we just stop mid-book.
For me, what exists in terms of the plot is really good, with lots of interesting bits, mysterious motivations, and a story that, as it’s revealed, is sure to grow ever more epic. I just wish the book was structured more to feel like it was more than the first 25% of a larger story.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
I love archaeology and especially the allusions that archaeology for Eska’s uncle in particular is viewed as a commercial enterprise to secure wealth from stolen treasures, while Eska herself has a more academic interest in studying the past.
There are parts where the authors seem to draw inspiration from history. A colossal statue made me think of the Colossus of Rhodes, a dynasty of tyrants overthrown by Tribunes made me think of the founding of the Roman Republic, Leonato de Scipicus the astronomer seemed to be an amalgam of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo – and I always like those kind of resonances.
In other places the world felt rich, but – like the plot – a bit improvised. Intriguing cities and customs were presented but I had a sense of things being picked up, but then dropped as the butterfly minds of Eska (and perhaps the authors) flitted off to another setting and situation. I felt this most strongly with the subplot around the accusation of murder levelled at Eska – which seemed to fade in and out of significance on almost authorial whim, and also Albus’s odyssey at a pirate’s side into the secluded world of a kind of maritime Switzerland.
The authors have created a really rich and interesting world, and I very much enjoyed exploring it. The pace of the narrative means some aspects are barely touched on before moving on to the next thing, which was occasionally disappointing, but overall a minor niggle. I would hope that in future books, we would loop back around to some of those places.
The magic system was pretty neat, although we don’t find out much about it until the second half of the book. It’s another thing I’m looking forward to seeing more of, and understanding better.
This novel has a historical feel to it and it is one of my favorite blends with fantasy. This impression came across even stronger in the audiobook version to me. As of everything mentioned already, nothing here happened in a straight line and so the lore and history parts were introduced in nuggets of interludes, letters and conversations. Because there were so many components to this book, I can’t say that there was a certain rise to worldbuilding, but rather moments I enjoyed. I don’t even know if I figured out or was able to keep track of everything in this history, but there were moments I enjoyed most. The lake scene in diving silks and the scary creature, Albus’s interrogation that had the lives of many crewmembers hinged on his answers, Eska’s call out of the fake artefact near the beginning.
I enjoyed the setting here, drawn from past foundations, with lots of seafaring moments, cities resembling that of old Venice, old linguistic style, exploration vibes and digs, shifting ladders and escape routes… I would have loved for everything to evolve more so around the artefacts and mystery surrounding the horcruxes (though just to be clear they aren’t actually horcruxes, Theo)
Like Theo, I enjoyed the resonances with our own history. In some ways, those little nods reminded me a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels–and that’s quite the compliment! The world feels just shy of familiar, in some ways. The way the governments function, the foods, commerce, invention, all of it feels like it could be familiar except for a quarter turn that the authors have pulled off, which instead makes it fresh and interesting without feeling entirely alien. I’m normally one for unique and alien worldbuilding, but I ended up enjoying the more subtle novelty that Greylock and O’Connor manage in this one.
Quotations that resonated with you
The writing is strong, particularly rich in its descriptive parts which got a lot of nice line notes on my kindle
Eska bantering with a former love interest
Once this kind of sparring, while full of sharp edges, had been purely an exercise, humorous and with no real consequence. Now it was laced with undercurrents she could not quite identify. Or perhaps she was simply feeling the distance – the necessary distance – that had grown between them in two years.
Albus worried about someone he has annoyed
Sylvain de Ulyssey was not a man to meet in a dark alley. But that was because he had people to go into dark alleys for him.
Or Albus in a strange place
This was a sea of grass, the most remarkable shade of green. It flowed around the knees of the litter-bearers and crested in waves driven onward by the wind.
There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, but I think in this one, we are all Albus:
Fourteen pairs of eyes stared across the deck at Albus. Some were resentful, some fearful. All were making it abundantly clear that they did not trust Albus with their lives. And why should they? He was not of their crew. He was a stranger, a temporary passenger. Worst of all, he preferred the company of books to the company of people.
There were so many good lines to choose from. I enjoyed all of the writing immensely, so here are just a few examples to get a feel for it:
“After all, when one speaks of death and then, less than a heartbeat later, nearly loses an eye-and a life- to a knife hurtling out of the darkness as though cast by an invisible hand, well, one can be inclined to believe any number of things.”
Rustic the Principe had called it, but small it was not, and Manon found herself in a cavernous great room filled with antlers and more than a few skulls of various beasts that had been unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Principe of Licenza and his predecessors.
Her end destination was Albus reason, the large ceremonial, sickle-shaped staff that rested-reverently, if any inanimate object could be said to possess such abilities- in a golden cradle on the wall behind the altar.
The prose in this one is very good. There is a smoothness and polish to everything, and I think that allows the description to be particularly evocative at times. At others, it isn’t that it’s evocative per se, but simply descriptive in a way that places you in the midst of the action. At other times, there are simply concise turns of phrase that paint excellent pictures, for instance:
But it was the flash of white and crimson and steel in the alley to her right that drew Eska’s eye.
This is a book of many strengths, though I think it could have been more tightly focussed to make the writing serve the plot more closely. It ends on something of a cliff hanger with a number of mysteries set up but not really exposed, let alone resolved. I could not imagine co-writing a book – I am far too much of a control freak – or a plotster if you like. Perhaps it’s that kind of reasoning which means the pantster variety of authors are most comfortable combining efforts in collaborative work. I don’t know how Greylock and O’Connor would categorise their writing style, but this does feel a bit like two talented pantsters egging each other on. Like an archaeologist working on a fossilised skeleton, they have brushed enough sand away to intrigue the reader, but not so much that we can see what it is yet.
Shadows of Ivory is a delightful romp, full of fantastic characters, many shenanigans and a really rich world. It’s an easy read, and I found it difficult to put down. Highly recommend to anyone who wants to read about competent people doing things that they’re passionate about.
I enjoyed this novel for drawing on the elements I enjoy such as archaeology, history, a mix of good and bad characters, the mystery behind artefacts and also the loyalty of friendship. Kate Reading is one of my favorite narrators of audiobooks and I found her a fitting choice. I spent a lot of time in Eska’s and Manon’s world, and if one enjoys an Indiana Jones Romanesque sort of read, this will be a great choice. Plenty of great moments and knifing intrigue too.
I loved the main character, Eska, and the other two viewpoint characters were well-crafted too. There is plenty of mystery to the magic system in this book–and to other aspects of the novel. I love all that mystery because it keeps you invested in the story. The prose also shines at points and the novel has plenty of polish. For me, there’s plenty to love in this one, and aside from my issues with the structure, outlined above, not a lot I didn’t like. This is one I can easily and happily recommend to everyone who loves fantasy.
So, if lushly written characters romping through a tangle of plot threads are your thing, then Shadows of Ivory is sure to satisfy.