Friday, April 29, 2016

Microreview [book]: Knight's Shadow, by Sebastien de Castell

De Castell levels up with a ‘laughdark’ surpassquel!

De Castell, Sebastien. Knight's Shadow. Jo Fletcher Books, 2015.

Buy it here.

Who’d have believed it—that’s two surpassquels in a row for this humble reviewer! I quite liked the mixture of witty banter and deathly serious plotting (and fighting) in Traitor’s Blade, and was trying to dial down my expectations for Knight’s Shadow, the second book in the Greatcoats series, figuring it was unlikely de Castell would quite manage to strike the right balance between humor and blood. Knight’s Shadow turned out to be a delightful surprise (until one too-visceral scene near the end, but then, that too was a surprise, albeit a less welcome one).

We’re back in the saddle with everyone’s favorite intrepid idealist, Falcio, and his stubborn devotion to principle in a world torn apart by Machiavellian/Game of Thrones-esque political intrigue is even more enticing a spectacle than it was in book one. A mystery disguised as a genre fantasy, it surpasses the first book—which was no slouch either!—in nearly every way, and certainly holds the reader’s attention, spurring one to wonder, with Falcio et al, what on earth could be happening, and what will result from all of it.

The only ‘falsio’ note (+5 for bad pun!) in all this is the grimmest of grim torture scenes near the end. (And in fact, it’s not a false note at all so much as a distressing if, I must reluctantly admit, logical turn.) Until this point, despite the worsening prognosis, I, like most readers presumably, remained confident there would be some sort of nick-of-time escape or clever stratagem to spare one of the protagonists such agony; but de Castell takes us right over that waterfall into pain-land. To his credit, he handles the scene with finesse, but as a reader not totally sold on the whole grimdark thing, I still felt this single scene threatened to leech the laughs out and leave us slumped over sniveling in the dark, rocking back and forth. That’s why I’ve dubbed this book a “laughdark”, as it starts out fairly light-hearted/optimistic in tone despite the enormous challenges facing our merry band of heroes, then dips down into pitch-black pessimism. I understand the reasons for this swan dive into the pit of torture-porn despair, but still suffered almost viscerally as I read it.

So the question before us is two-fold: a) does this bleak turn near the end of the book detract from the good times to be had in the rest? And b) can laughs be productively combined with grimdark? My answer to both questions, paradoxically, is yes. At least for this reader, the queasiness from reading said scene took a long time to abate, but upon reflection, I think the combination of humor and the willingness to go (grim)dark does indeed work well, overall.

This is all by way of saying that if you liked book one, you’ll surely like this book even more, the torture stuff notwithstanding; and if you haven’t read either one yet, why not? They’re great, and laughdark might just be a new mini-genre in its infancy!

 The Math:

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for creating a new mini-genre, ‘laughdark’; +1 for really working the mystery angle

Penalties: -1 for dip into dark as dark can be grimdark torture scene

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 “Totally worth your time and attention.”

[Just in case you think an 8 is too low given how much I obviously liked the book, check out our anti-grade inflation policy here.]

Zhaoyun, more of a laugher than a grimdarker, has been enjoying (yet getting a little queasy at) all manner of sci fi and fantasy books, light and dark, and reviewing them at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.