Anyone who has read my works knows that I enjoy playing with classic tropes. Among my favorites is the classic story of the Hero and the Dark Lord, equal and opposite forces destined to clash and tear the world asunder.
Most of my favorite incarnations of this trope tend to be in the form of Japanese games and literature — things like Maoyuu, for example, which is a love story between the Yuusha (Hero) and Maou (Demon King) of that particular setting. I’ve seen a couple Western stories that tinker with this trope in interesting ways — Mistborn is “what if the Hero failed”, for example, and the Traveler’s Gate Trilogy is “what if someone else from the hero’s tragic backstory village decided to do something about the Demon King himself”.
I’ve written a few takes on this trope myself. An early short story sent to my mailing list was about a geriatric Dark Lord’s surprise birthday, and I wrote a “summoned hero” style story for the Art of War anthology. I’ve even got a secret project on the way along these lines, too.
But, in spite of my general love of – and familiarity with – these tropes, I wasn’t prepared for The Brightest Shadow.
The Brightest Shadow by Sarah Lin shows us a world where humanity co-exists with a different (and sometimes dominant) humanoid species called the mansthein, or, as humans often call them in traditionally derogatory fashion, “deathspawn”.
The “Hero” is a legend of a destined human who will rise to throw off the yoke of “deathspawn” oppression, obliterating the Dark Lord and his foul servants. For some, the Hero is a source of hope, inspiration, and joy.
But for the mansthein — and those humans who are seeking peace between the species — the Hero is something else entirely. They’re a horrifying force of nature, a whirlwind of death, destruction, and insanity that consumes all within its path.
Never before have I seen the legendary chosen Hero depicted so convincingly as a monster. Every hint of the Hero’s arrival filled me not with hope, but with dread.
Would our protagonists survive the Hero’s bloody rampage? Was peace possible in a world where the Hero threatens with every breath to tear it asunder?
That, my friends, is our story—
In The Brightest Shadow, our protagonists aren’t Heroes or Dark Lords.
They’re simply trying to find a way to endure the collateral damage between them — and perhaps find a way to give the world some hope of surviving their inevitable clash.
With that overview done, let’s get into some details.
The story is third-person, multi-perspective. There are a couple main perspectives, as well as several peripheral ones. The author does a fantastic job of making each perspective feel subtly (or, at times, not-so-subtly) distinct, so we get a better idea of what the head space of each character might feel like.
There are two people I’d consider to be the “main” characters. Both were excellent and easy to read.
Tani is a member of tribe called the Nelee and in the midst of a coming-of-age journey to learn about the world and return to her tribe. She’s a proactive and likable character right from the start of the story, and her comparatively isolated background makes her a great lens through which we can learn about the world.
Slaten is a former swordsman who is attempting to turn his life around by working as a medic…poorly. As the story progresses, he’ll have important choices to make in terms of the kind of life he wants to lead and the people he wants to choose to support.
The characters have interesting dynamics with several other cast members, both each other and including several major supporting protagonists (and antagonists). They both have interesting interactions with the central Hero legend, too, but I won’t get into that in too much detail. That would spoil the fun.
For those of you who read my own books for the progression mechanics involved, you’ll probably enjoy this book. Tani, Slaten, and many of the other characters go through training, learn new techniques, and progress in power just like you’d expect to see in my stories or other progression fantasies.
Style wise, the flavor here feels very Cultivation flavored, but with interesting and distinct cultural distinctions within the setting itself. Different cultures treat their training differently, learning different techniques and having different philosophies on how exactly power improvements should work. Reading those distinctions and people experimenting with learning new techniques was a delight to me, and I think anyone who enjoys Cultivation novels will feel similarly.
There aren’t quite as clear of power level tiers as you’d see in something like Cradle or Arcane Ascension, largely because of those aforementioned cultural distinctions. There are clear power differences between characters, and there are some ways to measure them, but it’s clear that those measurements only present one part of the picture. Something like Traveler’s Gate or my own War of Broken Mirrors would be a reasonable comparison.
Personally, I found this style extremely engaging, and I found the clear improvements throughout the story to be very satisfying. In particular, a couple specific techniques proved extremely relevant to the core narrative and immensely important for the development of one particular cast member.
I liked Street Cultivation, one of this author’s previous works.
I loved this book. I’m absolutely hooked. The ending was fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for this new world.
In the meantime, I’ll just have to hope that the Hero doesn’t doom us all.