This is an interesting debut, a very assured piece of writing, the first part of a trilogy set in a vaguely Romanesque world. There's a good, exciting opening - a gladiatorial combat followed by some desperate goings-on in the nightmarish Shadowland. Then, after something of a cliff-hanger, the pace drops abruptly as several years are skipped over. This reminded me a little of the Monty Python episode: a gentle tour through the English countryside ends up, after increasingly improbably twists, with our heroes facing a firing squad, then - tada!- 'Reel missing', there they are back home. 'Phew, that was a lucky escape!' Now I daresay four years in the Shadowland would have been a very different story, and not the one the author wanted to tell, and undoubtedly snippets will be revealed over the course of the trilogy (the mysteries of Shadowland are obviously central to everything), but I still found it a bit disappointing.
The world-building is fairly broad-brush: there's the decaying Romanesque empire with its slaves and decadent way of life, and the religious empire, with its blood sacrifices and fanaticism, now on the rise, and a few bits and pieces on the periphery. The Roman aspects are quite detailed (almost too much so for my taste; I don't really like a setting that feels too close to the real world), but the rest is just sketched in. The real star of the show, however, is the Shadowland, the mysterious interior of the continent, filled with evil inhuman creatures and now spreading at an unnatural rate. Then there are the Waystalkers, the strange beings said to have been created by one of the gods to fight the evil, enslaved to humans and compelled not to harm them. It's a very intriguing setting, although there isn't a great deal of detail.
With the background a fairly blank canvas, the characters need to shine and I'm not sure these quite do, not yet. Marcus is a likeable enough bloke, but there's nothing much about him to make him stand out. His experiences in Shadowland have obviously left him traumatised, so that he seems almost unnaturally calm. Tyacles and Lokan are interesting but nothing special, and Sheena (or Jinx) - well, let's give her time to bloom. Simply having a traumatic or difficult past doesn't necessarily add interest to a character, but this is the first part of a trilogy, so it may well be that both Sheena and Marcus will develop over the full course of the story.
A lot of new characters appear in the second half of the book, and there's an air of setting things up for the remainder of the trilogy. The few glimpses we get of Sulia and its people are only just enough to get a flavour of their very different world, without really fleshing them out very much. By far the most interesting characters are the inhumanii - the Waystalkers and their families, kept as slaves in Prast, trained to kill the evil creatures in Shadowland but not allowed to harm humans without driving themselves mad. Parellio Redhands is absolutely fascinating - creepily menacing, with his own agenda, very powerful and he may (or may not) be able to kill humans. And his connection to Marcus is very intriguing. A terrific character.
The writing is literate and well-edited, on the whole, although the book is sprinkled with that curse of the self-publishing author, the sound-alike spelling ('reign' instead of 'rein', for instance, or my favourite - 'grizzly' instead of 'grisly'), and a few other minor typos. [Edit: removed reference to typos already fixed.] I'm not mad keen on the author's policy of putting the reader into the head of a new character who then disappears for ever a few pages later. It's disconcerting at first, and then it just gets irritating. Nevertheless, the plot flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter, and it's clear that this is all very carefully planned.
The plot, it has to be said, is a little slow. It seems to take a long time for Marcus to find out what's been happening back home while he's been off battling beasties and the whole nightmare of Shadowland, and there's a fair amount of angsting going on as well. This is quite useful, since it shows us the turmoil inside the calm exterior, and perhaps suggests that Marcus is not so much passive as numbed by his experiences, and almost unable to feel any emotion at all, and that gives some potential for things to change, but still, there was a little too much angst for my liking. Nevertheless, the story was trundling along quite well, the journey to Agotha was good, there was Jinx and Parellio to keep everything jumping and I was really enjoying it, and even beginning to get interested in Marcus and friends.
And then it all went wrong, in the last few chapters. It's a shame, because it was great up until that point, an enjoyable, well-written story, with enough interest and mysterious backstory to keep me turning the pages and a whole swathe of cliff-hangers to ensure I'm looking forward to the rest of the trilogy, heading for a good four stars - and then, whump. Sorry. Can't give it more than three stars. I daresay it's just me being contrary, and others wouldn't care about it at all, but for me it just didn't work. Mind you, I'm still probably interested enough to read the rest of the trilogy.
Here's the detail of the ending that I disliked:
Well, first of all, there's this invasion of strange northern barbarians, who have apparently travelled the length and breadth of the continent to trash a random Prastian city. Well, fine. I can buy that, I suppose. Even though they've hardly merited a mention beforehand. Even though it makes no real sense. Whatever. This is fantasy, after all.
And then there's Evrethia. She's the one who arranged for Marcus to go on his ill-fated jaunt into Shadowland, the one he spent years planning revenge on, the one who (he has discovered) has taken all his father's money and left him to die in squalor, the one Marcus himself has travelled for weeks to catch up with. And finally he does. And the conversation goes something like this:
Marcus (brandishing large dagger): I hate you, you stole my money and killed my father, and now I want my revenge!
Evrethia: Yes, SO sorry about all that. My father made me do it.
Marcus (putting dagger away): Oh. Well, that's all right then.
W-e-e-e-l-l. OK. I suppose. Whatever.
And finally, we have Marcus traipsing off into Shadowland, the one place in the world he never wants to see again. Why? Because the women need rescuing from the barbarians. Which women? The one who tried to kill him in the night, and the one who stole his money, killed his father, etc, etc. Now, Marcus is the guy who's been through so much in Shadowland that he is completely passive, uncaring, devoid of feeling. This has been underscored for the entire book, it's his defining characteristic. And suddenly he cares enough to go to the rescue? And for these two women, of all the women in the world? It's bad enough to resort to the women in peril routine as motivation at all, but for these two, it would be much more believable for Marcus to say - screw them, the barbarians can have them.
Now I suppose, if I'm being fair, this is all to show that Marcus isn't, in fact, the emotionless character he's been portrayed as, that a beautiful woman or two (even women who try to kill or cheat him) have the power to soften that iron heart of his, and if that works for you, that's fine. It just didn't work for me, it was too abrupt a change. And I would love it, actually, if Sheena/Jinx and Evrethia were to extricate themselves from their captivity, pulp a few barbarians and turn up, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, to greet Marcus before he's gone ten paces into Shadowland, but somehow I don't see that happening.