Once again I have gone unnoticed. My thanks to the shadow of night. The shadow is my helpmate, my lover, my companion. I hide inside her, I live with her, and she is the only one always ready to shelter me, to save me from the arrows, from the swords that flash balefully in the moonlit night, and the bloodthirsty, golden eyes of the demons. No one else cares for Harold...maybe Brother For. (p. 10)If Russian epic fantasist Alexey Pehov had managed to write his debut novel, Shadow Prowler, throughout with the same level of prose that this short excerpt from the beginning had, I might have enjoyed this novel. Unfortunately, this novel contained very little of interest, as it was a constant struggle to attempt to engage a very derivative work.
The basic summary of the book is as follows: Shadow Prowler is the opener for an epic fantasy trilogy called The Chronicles of Siala. It features a casting central Sauron type, with a motley crew led by the erstwhile master thief Harold attempting to find a magic horn that will restore peace in the land of Siala. Along the way, Harold encounters beardless dwarves, light and dark elves, gnomes, hyperactive goblins, fierce orcs, and a few ogres. Umm...yes. This sounds like just the sort of exciting read for the likes of me.
Normally, I would attempt to write in third-person about the novel's strengths and weaknesses. However, there is a time and place to explore just why the novel did not connect with the reviewer. This is not to glorify the reviewer or to put down those who did enjoy the novel for precisely the reasons why it failed to resonate with me, but rather to explore further how Reader/Text interactions can go awry.
Pehov, even in translation, was not a terribly bad prose stylist. There are several passages like the one I quoted above where a glimmer of interest was generated. However, these are counterbalanced by character descriptions that feel as though they were cut whole cloth from other epic fantasy novels, with little, if anything, "new" or "original" added to them. Dwarves, bearded or not, work with stone. Orcs are, well, orcish. Elves, although divided into two groups, still feel a bit distant and perhaps smug and arrogant to boot. There is a princess who joins the thief's quest. There are several side quests, as much of this novel is devoted toward setting up for the main quest of the magic horn to take place in the following two volumes. Pardon me if I found myself wondering if I were reading someone's D&D campaign written out in novel form.
It is difficult enough for a reader to "enter" into an imagined setting. Doubtless, there have to be touching stones that allow that reader to get a grasp for what is transpiring. Pehov does provide this for those who are familiar with epic quest-style fantasies. But for those readers (and I am one) who do not tend to relate well to these type of stories, Pehov's straightforward appropriation of these epic fantasy tropes without much in the way of providing twists or other incentives for these readers to want to immerse themselves in the novel creates a dissonance that can make it nearly impossible to engage with the novel on its own terms.
This certainly was the case for me. I found myself anticipating what was going to happen, well at least when my eyes weren't glazing over due to reading passages such as this:
I grabbed my crossbow and dashed to the window. There was no question of lighting a candle. It would have taken too long to find one. I would have to load the crossbow by the light of the stars. Yes, I can load it in complete darkness, but it would have been annoying to confuse an ordinary bolt with one of the magical ones, then roast myself as well as my target when I fired. (pp. 248-249)Magical items, talismans, wielders of magic who may be distant and mysterious for no other reason than to appear to be practitioners of arcane arts. This book is chock full of them. None of it resonated with me. It just felt as though I had read this before somewhere in the past. Nothing really new. No real depth to any of the characters presented. This was disconcerting, considering that a large percentage of the novel was told in first-person PoV from the perspective of thief Harold. His character just felt stilted and contained little narrative tension.
Perhaps "lifeless" is the most apt description of this novel. It apes the mannerisms and characterizations of older epic fantasy novels, especially those of a "high magic" nature. Yet there is nothing really exciting about it; it is merely the repeating of well-worn epic staples without really adding anything to the mix. Without this sense that Pehov had anything different to offer, my mind switched to auto-pilot. I was not engaged as I had hoped to be engaged. This novel was not for me, simple as that.