Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Review: The Shadow of Black Wings

The Shadow of Black Wings
The Shadow of Black Wings by James Calbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upfront disclaimer: I know the author slightly through interacting with him on Google+, which is why I bought the book. I paid full price and he hasn't given me any incentives to do a review or say nice things. I'm going to be critical in any case, not because I didn't like the book (I did), but because I think he can take it.

I'll start by saying that it's well-written, well-edited and (as far as I could tell, not being an expert on 19th-century Japan or Wales) well-researched. This already puts it ahead of 98% of indie-published books, and many traditionally-published ones.

The author is not a native English speaker, and it occasionally shows in an odd turn of phrase like "neared it to his eye". Mostly, though, the English is above average, better than most native speakers write.

This is the first book in a series, and it's not complete in itself. I don't love that, but it's a long-established fantasy-fiction tradition, and it's not as if the book just stops abruptly (I have read others that do). Given that, some of the criticisms I was going to make about setups with no punchline should probably be held back until I finish the series, which I intend to do. I'll note them here anyway so that I don't forget.

When I read the sample before buying the ebook, my first thought was that the worldbuilding was maybe a bit over-exhuberant. They're dragonriders? OK, fine, nothing new there, but it's cool. They can channel the magic of their dragons? Even cooler, and original as far as I know. Wait, they can also shapeshift into dragonlike beings? That may be just a little too cool. And in fact it never comes up again in the rest of this first volume - the first setup with no punchline (so far).

Then there are a couple of things that I would have done differently if it had been me, but there may be a reason that I haven't seen yet. There are a couple of linked reasons why I would have done these things differently: credibility and importance to the plot.

What I mean is, the history of this version of the world is very, very different. No Christianity, no fall of the Roman Empire, and quite a few other consequential changes (plus all the magic, of course). So it's highly unlikely that the same individuals, with the same names, would be born in the equivalent of the 19th century, given that very different history. (Victoria is on the throne, and Brunel is a prominent wizard.) It also, at least in this book, makes no difference to the plot, since these people, and several historical characters like Henry VII, are mentioned but don't appear on stage. Another setup with no punchline.

On the other hand, I would find it a lot more credible for many countries to retain similar names to the ones that they had in reality, and it would also have made it easier to figure out which countries were actually being talked about. I have a pretty good grasp of history and geography, so I could mostly follow the differences (and there's a map), but I did struggle, and I think a lot of people would have no idea. Even a few familiar names would have helped a lot.

About halfway through, the viewpoint character drops completely out of sight for several chapters and we meet several new people we haven't seen before. One has red hair, which is variously described as "amber" (which sounds dark blonde), "copper", "auburn" and "strawberry blonde". Those are very different hair colours, so I was left without a clear idea of what she actually looked like.

This shift in viewpoint, I think, contributed to the fact that I put the book down for a while and read other things. A clearer through-line focussed on telling just one story about just one person or group of people would have held my attention better.

Having said all that, this is a rich setting, the characters are appealing if so far not all that heroic, the writing is excellent and I will definitely be getting the next in the series, because I want to know what happens next (and also have been enjoying the ride).

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