Review: The Conqueror’s Shadow

Today, I’m reviewing The Conqueror’s Shadow by Ari Marmell.
You can find the author’s official website here:

*SPOILER WARNING* This review may contain spoilers for the book. *SPOILER WARNING*

I grew up on Dungeons and Dragons. Pool of Radiance was the first PC game I owned, and Dragons of Autumn Twilight was one of the first novels I ever remember reading. The Conqueror’s Shadow clearly draws inspiration from D&D fiction – but twists it into a darker, grittier direction. I’ve seen a lot of other excellent dark fantasy lately, but none of it has ever so closely resembled a traditional D&D story. Make no mistake, however, this is not your average heroic adventure. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – and very intentionally so.

The Conqueror’s Shadow is the story of Corvis Rebaine, a former warlord that nearly conquered the continent of Imphallion. The novel is written from a third person perspective, and some sections focus on the perspectives of other characters, but ultimately Corvis is the clear protagonist of the story. Additionally, the beginning of each chapter has a section that describes an event that occurred sometime prior to the main story. This unusual approach helps to give the reader a very thorough understanding of all the circumstances behind the events of the novel, including the motivations of the villains and most of the other members of the cast. I liked this approach, as it helped make the most of the characters in the story seem three-dimensional. While the protagonist is a brutal, sometimes villainous character, you also get to see the events through the perspective of characters that more closely resemble typical heroes – a famous knight, the regent that lead the armies against the warlord, and the powerful sorcerers that aided them.

I should mention that while I noted some “dark” scenes in my previous book review, that was an entirely different kind of dark. The Name of the Wind was dark in that it had some jarring, horrible, things happen to the main character. It also felt very gritty and realistic. This book, on the other hand, is dark in that it delves into a great deal of moral ambiguity. The characters – including the protagonist – do some terrible things for what they believe to be the greater good. The author gives compelling justifications for some truly atrocious deeds; this is not reading for the faint of heart. I enjoyed that quality of the story immensely.

Now, let’s get into the specific elements of the story. I’m cutting out a few sections; I’ve decided that I went overboard on the number of categories for the last review. Please forgive me while my reviewing skills go through some growing pains.

Characters: Corvis starts as a strong, likable protagonist and only grows throughout the story. This is, for the most part, engineered by showing us Corvis’ dedication to his causes and his willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. We see Corvis both develop as a character and show aspects of his personality that remain static; this is not your traditional “hero’s rise” nor is it even a redemption story. Really, I saw it as being more about ambition, and about the extreme measures that might be necessary to force change in a culture.

It also teaches us not to screw with a guy who wears a helmet that looks like a skull.

Corvis also has something of a psuedo-adventuring party composed mostly of his lieutenants. Each of his companions is seemingly an intentional mirror of common fantasy troupe protagonists; we get a witch instead of a sorceress, an ogre instead of a burly fighter, and a demon-possessed object instead of a spiritual guide. Consequently, Corvis’ equipment is similar; rather than an ancestral family sword, he has a demonic axe, more befitting his reputation as a butcher of men.

The primary antagonist, Audriss, is Corvis’ own reflection. When we see things from Audriss’ perspective, his goals and motives are understandable – but I’d actually say that the author may have gone a little too far with the mirroring. The antagonist managed to get a demonic weapon nearly identical to the protagonist’s, a demon of his own with a centruies-long animosity for Corvis’ demon, and his own, more impressive black armor. Part of this resemblance is justifiable; it’s a major plot point that Audriss is following in Corvis’ footsteps. The magical items (including the trapped demons) matching so closely seems a bit more far fetched to me, however, since we do not see any other magic items in the story. This leads me to believe that magical items are rare in this setting, and even with the villain’s considerable resources, it seems awkward to me that he ended up with gear that so closely matched the protagonist’s own items.  Perhaps these demon-blades are the only magical weapons in the setting, and maybe the antagonist was inspired by Corvis’ own use of a demon and went to find one himself, but ultimately I think the two characters could have used a little more distinction.

And, on a similar note, all the characters could have used another kind of distinction – dialogue. I love a cynical, sarcastic protagonist. I love characters like that in general. This story takes it a step too far. There aren’t really any major characters that *aren’t* cynical and sarcastic. Perhaps a few minor ones, but really, all the major characters seem to share this trait. I’d like to see more distinct personalities and dialogue styles in Marmell’s future volumes.

World: We see only a fraction of the world (which I don’t seem to remember hearing a name for) in this story; it’s more focused on a single continent. This isn’t a problem, really, just a note. The continent itself seems fairly diverse, and we get hints of the world outside. If the author reads this, I’d like to thank him for having a “frozen south” instead of a “frozen north”. This story reverses a number of conventional fantasy tropes, but that one was particularly amusing to me.

We get hints of developed religions, deities, etc. in the story, but not a lot of depth. This is fine, as the story is focused on the war, and we have no evidence of any traditional priestly powers in the scope of the story. Perhaps the gods don’t give out superpowers in this setting, or maybe we just haven’t seen a cleric or paladin equivalent yet. (Does Corvis count as an anti-paladin or Blackguard? Hrm…) In any case, religion plays a minor role in the story, and it’s something I’d like to see explored more in future books.

Typical fantasy races have been drastically transformed in this story – gnomes are terrifying, hideous abominations; ogres are horned cyclopses; fay are scary, vicious predators… Most of the more common races, such as elves and dwarves, are completely absent. And another popular race is never even identified by name – but you’ll figure it out if you read the book. Fantastic.

We get to see a seemingly realistic depiction of traveling through a frozen mountain range in the story, which I really enjoyed. Too often, this type of scene is glossed over in favor of showing off how badass the protagonist is to survive in the “arctic” conditions. In this book, we get to see the protagonist pushed to his limits, suffering from all the side effects of muscling his way through unfamiliar conditions. This was one of the better scenes, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed the depiction of how demons work in this setting. I’d rather not spoil the details, but demons in this world are unique and creepy as hell.

Speaking of “hell”, though, I’d should jump into the next section.

Writing: “Hell” is one of those words I dislike seeing in fantasy unless there is a clearly defined “hell” in that setting’s mythology. I’m really not sure if there’s one here or not, so I’m not going to point any fingers yet, but if there *isn’t* a hell in the setting I’d rather see the word avoided. This isn’t a tangent – one of the most jarring parts of the writing in this book was the number of anachronisms and modern day phrases. There were a number of times that I read a phrase several times because it jarred me to see it in a fantasy book; I don’t mind swearing in fantasy, by the way, but modern phrases do bug me. For example, at one point a character uses the expression, “With bells on.” This *could* be used in a medieval setting – I’m sure they had bells – but the fact that it’s a modern-day expression bugged me a bit.

On a similar note, the writer uses a little too much RPG language for my tastes. Using “circles” to denote levels of spell-casting power works great for staying in-character for pen and paper or LARP, but it’s less believable in a novel. I also laughed when the phrase “low on health” was used. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s almost as extreme as saying, “Corvis was almost out of hit points.”  This lends some humor to the tale, of course, and it’s fine if that was intentional – but I found it immersion-breaking.

That minor gripe aside, I found the writing style of this book both unique and compelling. I especially liked the unusual flavor of having sections at the beginning of each chapter set in the past; this was both a convenient device for revealing information at the appropriate pace and a good way to keep the reader hooked into reading more. I had a hard time putting the book down, especially toward the end.

The ending was fantastic. The last several chapters are a string of enthralling events, leading up to a fantastic climax. I was very pleased by the last couple pages, too. I don’t think any other ending could have done the story justice.

Overall: In conclusion, The Conqueror’s Shadow starts strong and only gets stronger as it progresses. I had a great time reading the book, though I will say that readers who don’t enjoy D&D style fantasy will probably have some of the same problems with this book that they do with Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, etc. The book sets up nicely for sequels, but also stands well on its own – a rarity, in my experience. The story gets most of its originality by taking your average fantasy story and turning it inside-out, which proved to be clever and captivating.

I’d recommend this story to anyone who likes darker, nastier protagonists – or even readers who enjoy an old fashioned D&D story. You’ll get a kick out of seeing the D&D story arc turned upside down.

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