Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The Shadow at the Gate" by Christopher Bunn (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Can a fantasy series based on generic tropes but with a very inventive approach continue being surprising in the second volume was the big question for me when I started this highly awaited sequel to The Hawk and His Boy by Christopher Bunn. I liked the author writing a lot in the first novel so I was pretty sure I would enjoy the Shadow at the Gate even if it turns ultra-predictable the way this one did, but I truly hoped he would manage to keep the story fresh and entertaining.

"The second volume of the epic fantasy saga that began with The Hawk and His Boy takes us back to the story of the thief Jute. The emissaries of the Darkness have infiltrated the city of Hearne in search of him. Desperate to escape, the boy flees the city and heads into the wilderness of the north. But the ghosts of the past have other plans for him and, soon, Jute and his friends must choose between their own deaths or the destruction of the entire land. All the while, the mysterious lady Levoreth races against time in order to discover who is behind the schemes of the Darkness."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Shadow at the Gate" picks up where The Hawk and His Boy ends and continues to roll. The storyline which expanded quite unexpectedly in the first book compacts here dramatically with events coming in clear focus, while new and partly predictable, partly surprising directions are opened. The universe of the series also expands geographically beyond Hearne and historically with recollections of long-ago events that influence today's big picture.

The novel was a pleasure to read and it flowed on the page, while the shifts in narrative were quite smooth as in the first book. The main characters: Jute, Levoreth, Ronan, the Silentman, the hawk, Severan and several others I will let you discover have their own quirks: the hawk is occasionally snotty and arrogant, Jute is still a street-boy at heart despite his "new destiny", Severan is often annoyed by what he perceives as the disinterest of Jute in his teaching, rather than being the patient wise mentor etc, and these traits are extremely effective in giving depth to what would have otherwise been stock fantasy characters.

There is a lot of action from sword fights to daring escapes to high magic battles, while quite funny scenes alternate with tense and even heartbreaking ones, but the main strength of "The Shadow at the Gate" - besides the superb storytelling skill of the author - lies in mixing predictable fantasy tropes - ancient evil, elemental beings, talking animals, spells that change people into animals, darkness versus light - with an authorial take that is very unpredictable and even zany on occasion.

Simply put, you think you have a feel where the book goes and you think "oh, now that this happened, then that will be next" as per the usual manual of writing epic fantasy consulted by so many authors, and Christopher Bunn pulls a surprise and the story moves away from the standard expectations, maybe again towards something you've seen but in another context and then again, the track changes so to speak. For me this continual confounding of expectations has been very effective and it was probably the number one reason I have been enjoying the Tormay series so much.
"The Shadow at the Gate" (A+, but really close to a breakout A++ book for me) fulfills the promise of A Hawk and His Boy in spades, so the next series book is another huge asap for me while being curious if the author can keep this inventive approach going.