On a tropical island inhabited by castoffs, treasure hunters and malcontents, a dipsomaniac treasure hunter, Stagger, and his supremely capable partner Infidel get into a deadly spot. While Infidel may be mostly invulnerable and superhumanly strong, Stagger unfortunately, is not.
When the treasure hunter dies, his ghost does not move onto the next realm, but instead seems bound to the knife that his partner, Infidel, still bears. And this allows him to be a witness, and at-a-remove participant, as Infidel gets caught in the coils and plots of an ambitious expedition that comes to the island–to kill the primal fire dragon at the heart of the island: Greatshadow.
Such is the matter of Greatshadow, the debut novel from James Maxey. Billed as the first novel of the “Dragon Apocalypse”, Greatshadow is a sword and sorcery novel that takes place in a high magic secondary fantasy world where man and other intelligent races are locked in conflict with a number of primal dragons who represent, in a very real sense, elements of nature.
I had strong hesitations on reading this book, given the cover. Even more than the too typical “pretty woman with a blade and a dragon” cover, the image of the woman (Infidel, naturally) on the cover falls for me in the “uncanny valley”. Still, I decided to give the book a chance and prove that you can’t judge a book by its cover. I have in a long reading career seen some some terrible covers for some very good novels and stories.
One interesting thing about Greatshadow is the choice of POV character–a ghost. This does allow him to tag along and be an everyman character with some heavy hitters with strange powers. The real Stagger would have real difficulties surviving some of the stuff thrown at the expedition. And at points, his ghost is given more autonomy and agency, avoiding the threat of having a POV character without any ability to affect the proceedings. Regardless, it allows the author a chance to mix a first person POV’s internal dialogue with a third point hands-off narrative, and for the most part this bold and innovative approach works.
The Isle of Fire and the community of Commonground are well described. The description and evocation of the setting especially get going once the expedition is underway and the unlikely group of adventurers penetrate the wilds of the island. There are some really good senses of place evoked in locales ranging from the Black Swan bar to the strange and wondrous lair of the dragon. The latter evoked for me memories of the strange rooms and devices in Archmage Zagig’s lair, Castle Greyhawk.
The action beats in the novel also work well. The combats in the book are high energy cinematic rather than gritty realism. Opponents getting knocked for miles, Exalted style action is the general rule of the day. Readers looking for gritty swordfights are going to be sorely disappointed. Maxey’s rule for how much cinema to put into his encounters is “more dakka”.
Death is a real possibility in this world. The expedition loses team members, sometimes in a capricious fashion, and sometimes by the stupidity of the team members. The author captures the risks and problems of a team of adventurers going into hostile territory against a primal dragon very well indeed.
And what a cast of characters and abilities. Paladins with armor prayed over. Priests with the ability to divine Truth, with a capital T. A liar with a capital L who can bend reality to his lies. A trio of mercenaries dangerous and deadly in concert or alone. An ogress priestess with ice powers. All of the adventurers in the expedition can kick tail in sometimes unexpected ways and with unusual abilities. The universe of Greatshadow is stuffed with ideas, magics, and just cool stuff. And I didn’t mention even stranger things that pop up, like the time traveler.
All of this is good. And perhaps there is way too much of a good thing. I think the author has tried to stuff too many cool elements into one novel, one world. There is something of a lack of coherence to this world with all of the races, powers, concepts and types of magic stuck in here, sometimes with the appearance of a lack of rhyme and reason.
The big thing that didn’t work for me is a rather large problem that kept threatening to derail my reading experience entirely. It’s the relationship between Stagger the ghost and Infidel.
From what I can tell from the text, Stagger never let his feelings for Infidel be known prior to his death, and due to her Superman/Hulk like physical abilities (with fine control issues), Infidel has sworn off physical relationships whatsoever. And even given Infidel’s reasons for not pursuing a relationship with Stagger prior to his death, that just makes his afterlife relationship with her worse.
As near as I can figure, he is going to haunt her, presumably for as long as she keeps the knife? So the ghost of an old(er) man is going to perpetually watch over Infidel? I’m not sure if its sad, pathetic, creepy or a combination of all three. And when the character doing this is himself the POV character, it really skews the enjoyment of the book for me.
In addition, the relations between some of the other characters often feel somewhat discordant. For all of the cool things in the novel, characterization and the relationships suffer badly by comparison. I do give the book props for easily passing the Bechdel test by having two strong women warriors (Infidel and Aurora). But as good as their relationship is, other relationships are cringe-worthy. Infidel’s relationship with Lord Tower is as problematic for me as the relationship with Stagger.
Could I judge this book by the cover, then? Partially, I think. Given the flaws and problems I had with the book, it’s clear that the author is a fount of inventiveness. With a less disquieting central relationship and a little bit of restraint and pruning, I think, the author has some talent to harness. Greatshadow, for me, though, was not a successful harnessing of that talent.