K. J. Parker
In the north of the Empire a man awakes. Around him lie the remains of a battle, dead soldiers of both sides scattered across the muddy floor of a river valley and crows fluttering eagerly overhead. Which side he was on, he can’t remember – in fact, he can’t remember anything. Who he is, how he got here, just where ‘here’ actually is… nothing. Seems to be pretty good with a sword, though.
Forgetting your past could get a man in a lot of trouble, especially when your past seems determined to seek you out and wrap you up in a whole complicated web of treachery and politics. Everything our hero learns about himself just seems to bring him more strife, and wandering the countryside in a rickety cart masquerading as the God of the Apocalypse certainly isn’t helping.
When too many sides in a conflict recognise you as one of their own, everything gets very confusing. Who to trust? The confidence trickster who uses the god-in-the-cart routine to scam villages for food? The politician with his eye on the Emperor’s throne? Or the voices in your head, telling you the ‘god’ swindle might not just be an act? Maybe it’d just be easier to abandon the man he was and start again anew. If only he could find a little corner of the world where trouble didn’t follow…
In a just world, K.J. Parker’s ‘Shadow’ would come with a large warning across the front cover, bold red letters informing the casual browser to steer well clear. Not that it’s unreadable, not by any means – Parker’s prose is light and breezy, agonisingly nonchalant and a dream to read. No, the problem lies with the reader’s attention span, their ability to concentrate whatever intellect they may possess on the tale within. For should you dare to leave ‘Shadow’ unread for a day or two you’ll find yourself hopelessly entangled in a lasso of half-remembered plot twists or trapped along with a whole shoal of red herrings.
In these pages nothing happens by accident, every chance encounter is significant – or at least it tries to make you think it is. Parker weaves a plot of breathtaking, mind-numbing, incomprehensible complexity; unless it has your full attention you are bound to miss something vital.
Forget trying to guess the ending, even if you’re good at that sort of thing. So many dead-ends and false trails are laid in this novel that it must be hard for the author himself to figure out what’s happening, never mind the reader. Such unpredictability is refreshing but to reach such dizzy heights without sacrificing the narrative’s plausibility and consistency is something very special indeed.
If ‘Shadow’ has one fault, it is that our hero’s lack of memory leaves him without direction and, fatally at times, without any real drive. Perhaps it is a deliberate act on the author’s part, but Poldarn (the name our hero ends up using, to avoid excessive and imprecise overuse of ‘he’ if for no other reason) seems very much an observer, separated from the world around him. It’s difficult to empathise with someone like that, the choices he makes difficult to predict and harder to understand. It all fits in with our hero’s blank-slate nature of course, but it makes him a troublesome protagonist.
As mentioned before, ‘Shadow’ is written in such a way that it is – despite all manner of confusion – blissfully easy to read. Parker has a way with words, a certain unconventional way of looking at things that makes him stand out from the crowd. It also strikes a chord with any reader whose mind has occasionally betrayed them, and we’ve all been there. If anything the author goes a little too far, the quirky running commentary inside Poldarn’s head detracting from scenes where a little more emphasis on the serious side of things might have added emotional weight. It’s a fine portrayal of the human brain’s tendency to shy away from danger, but it’s a trick that is overused.
Despite an unlikeable protagonist and a plot that’ll pull your brain out through your ears and knot it under your chin, ‘Shadow’ is a fantastic piece of work. Original, unique and thought-provoking, it ends with a revelation that asks more questions than it answers Anybody who reads this and doesn’t want to read the sequel immediately hasn’t been paying enough attention. It’s entertaining and intelligent, a book that has to be read a half-dozen times before it begins to make much sense. Some people would find that frustrating: I find it delightful. ‘Shadow’ now sits happily on my ‘aspirin included free of charge’ shelf, just waiting for the next time I feel like letting my mind out of its cage.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com