Shadow Magic is the second novel in Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett’s Volstovic cycle. While the first book Havemercy centred on the war between Volstov and the Ke-Han, Shadow Magic is set in the land of the Ke-Han during the post-war treaty negotiations. Like its predecessor, the book is told from four different perspectives. Caius and Alcibiades (who we previously met in Havemercy) are part of the diplomatic party involved in forming the peace treaty. The other two characters are Mamoru, a young Ke-Han prince, and his retainer, Kouje.
After the Ke-Han lost the war, Mamoru’s father ceremoniously committed suicide and his elder brother Iseul became emperor in his stead. Kouje discovers that Iseul is plotting to have Mamoru killed, so they flee in the night and attempt to make their way across the border into Volstov. Meanwhile, Caius and Alcibiades begin to suspect that Iseul doesn’t really want peace after all, and that the negotiations are instead a diversionary tactic. Needless to say, shit goes down (in a very hurried fashion, and right towards the end of the book).
I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Havemercy. The authors have done a great job creating a Ke-Han culture and land that is very recognisably different from Volstov, but it’s just not a culture I was particularly interested in reading about. The extreme subservience of the Ke-Han servants made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and it all just felt a tad overdone. I’d much rather read about the brash Dragon Corps again (although it would be kind of tricky, considering they were largely killed off in Havemercy. Sob!) I also wasn’t so keen on the four narratives. I found Alcibiades the best perspective to read from, but all of the others just felt really over the top, to the point of becoming caricatures. Mamoru drove me absolutely mad with his constant worrying and overthinking, I just wanted to give him a slap and tell him to pull himself together. Kouje’s characterisation focused so much on his relationship with Mamoru rather than anything uniquely individual to him, so he felt the least developed of all four and also, frankly, a bit of a bore. Their relationship was a bit weird too, there were a lot of fatherly or older brotherly vibes from Kouje towards Mamoru, and yet every now and then it took a bit of a homoerotic turn. There were lots of flushed cheeks and trembling lips, but again it felt a bit overdone. Not nearly as overdone as the character of Caius though, who was so camp that he became a bit ludicrous. I like characters to be distinctive from one another, but there was no element of subtlety at all, and everything was very much of the ‘in your face’ school of characterisation. In the case of Caius especially, it was just too much.
To be honest, I’m not really sure how necessary it was to tell the story from four different viewpoints. I could understand it more with Havemercy, but as the four characters of Shadow Magic are basically divided into two pairs who are constantly clinging to each other and experiencing exactly the same things, I think the story could just as easily have been told with two characters, one Volstovic and one Ke-Han. The addition of two extra characters who don’t really add anything new to the narrative felt like it dragged the story out for longer, but without giving any new information. It made it feel overly long, and rather slow moving at times.
I definitely felt that the book could have been condensed, as it felt like there wasn’t a lot happening for large chunks of the story. Mamoru and Kouje were travelling together for the vast majority of the book, and it felt a bit same-old. Nothing really changed in their situation, and nothing particularly exciting or illuminating happened along the way. Caius and Alcibiades spent a lot of time bickering back and forth, which was entertaining but didn’t really further the plot in any way. The most dramatic action didn’t happen until right towards the very end of the book. This is completely understandable because that’s when readers want a big climax, except there still wasn’t a climax. None of the characters were narratively present during the action, so an extremely hurried description was provided almost in passing, and as a reader I completely missed the main event. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure just exactly what the main event was, because any mention of it was so rushed that I haven’t completely grasped what happened. I definitely felt cheated. Having read through literally hundreds of pages of not-a-lot-happening, I think I deserved a meaty chunk of rollicking action and battle scenes. Alas, it was not to be. (It’s also worth mentioning that this book was actually a reread for me, but I couldn’t remember very much that happened at all, which is rather telling in itself).
Shadow Magic is definitely slower paced and, yes I’ll say it, less interesting than Havemercy, which is a bit disappointing. I mentioned in my Havemercy review that the writing style felt a bit unsophisticated at times, and that it was quite obvious that it was the authors’ first book, and this hadn’t changed by Shadow Magic. That’s not necessarily a problem, everyone needs to start somewhere after all, but it did feel a tad clunky at times. That may be because the book’s a collaboration between two authors, I’m not sure. I felt that I noticed it more in Shadow Magic than Havemercy though, probably because I wasn’t caught up in the story in the same way. I’ll still continue with the series though, as it looks like at least one of the other two books will be set in Volstov, which I infinitely prefer. Of course there is a danger that the series peaked with Havemercy and none of the others will live up to it, but the names of the later books, Dragon Soul and Steelhands, are also leading me to hope that I’ll get to see some more of the Dragon Corps, so they’re definitely risks I’m willing to take.