The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick

“Never enter into a battle that you have not already won.”

There is a war between the two great Houses of the Walled City. The wealthy Medici’s fight for control of the spice trade against the Duke and his family, the Lorraines. Lines are drawn in the populace by a simple glance at your facial hair. Helping further their patrons, Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci perform a battle of wits, creating technologies that function like magic. And caught between the two are the star-crossed lovers Lorenzo and Lucia.

But unseen forces are controlling the city. A priest commands an underground cult to cleanse the land. A Shadow Master works his magic at the most opportune of times. And a plague army marches on the last bastion of humanity.

If anything, Cormick has imagination. He helps bring this alternate Italian world to life with actual historical events that help strengthen the story; it doesn’t do much to help the ending. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The real star of the show is his humor.

“’Tar my bung hole and use me for a keg!’”

Any book that opens with this is bound to have its fair share of laughs. And from back and forths between the Duke and his wife to the madmen strolling through the street, this story was chock full of them. However, I’m not sure how much of this was intentional. I like to think the author intended this to be satire, evident by the smartest man in the cast, the Shadow Master.

I think he’s the only sane man in a world of madmen, even if his riddle tongue makes you disagree.

He was always one step ahead of everybody, didn’t care for the metaphors of the city, and talked as a plain speaking foreigner. I like to think he was what the author envisioned as the reader, because the plot is predictable and the flowering metaphors make my eyes bleed.

They have the same effect on our lovely string puller.

Staying on this train of satire, Cormick does a fine job of presenting us the un-romanticized version of Romeo and Juliet. He presents us the fallacy of teenage infatuation in Lorenzo’s forgetfulness, their almost bland attraction to each other that can only be committed to hormones, and Lucia’s eventual stumblings that lead to her kidnapping. I mean, only an idiot screams out in the middle of the night for her secret lover and expects to find him hiding in her tower.

Another thing I fell for was the interesting premises. In Cormick’s world, science is very much like magic. Leonardo’s flying machine turns you into an eagle when you don its harness. Galileo’s telescope pushes you to where you look. But they don’t want to push the envelope for fear of bringing down ruin like the ancients did.

Which begs the question: Are the ancients the Greeks and Romans, or us? Food for thought.

But while it may take a second to adjust to the style and underhanded quips at society, it takes a lot to understand the repetitious beginning.

As I said, both ends are pretty jumbled. The first few chapters reek of telling us what is going on rather than letting us see for ourselves. The dialogue is rigid. And heaven help you with the awkward metaphors. They deserve a list of their own. But as time goes by, the pacing picks up, and we’re presented with a decent story.

“’Think of it as a matter of wife or death,’ the stranger said.

‘What?’ asked Lorenzo.

The stranger sighed. ‘It is a play on words. You were meant to laugh. To lighten the gravity of the moment,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Lorenzo.”

Unfortunately, I do.

I know a few people have said that at about the middle is where things start to lose focus, but I didn’t have this problem until the last 10 percent. Maybe I was expecting it. Whatever the case may be, Cormick needs to work on creating a clear, concise ending. An explosion of ideas, while nice, does not excuse this train wreck.

I think the biggest reason he failed is because he put all his energy into action scenes.

But the man doesn’t know how to write an action scene. He gets excited, loses his train of thought, tries to find it through exposition and metaphors, and then fails to edit that loss of immersion out. The ideas become cluttered, and that’s something he really needs to work on. He’s got a nice premise; he just needs to hone his craft and slow down.

What he really needs is a good edit. And I think this book shows the current deterioration of Angry Robots’ novels. A nice cover and blurb doesn’t make me gloss over the many editing mistakes. But that’s not solely their fault either.

If Cormick can settle down in his second book and find a clear vision, I’m sure he’ll have a great page-turner. He just needs to calm down and work on the court intrigue and humor, not the knife fights.

“His mother had known it in him early in his life and told family that he had a heart of gold – though she meant the metaphor to mean it was cold, yellow and hard to find.”

*I was given this ARC for my honest review.*

Rating: 5.5/10

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