Shadow Prowler is the first book in the Chronicles of Siala series by Russian author Alexey Pehov. It was originally written, in Russian, in 2002, but published by TOR in 2010 under English translation by Andrew Bromfield. I bought my copy new – paperback – with the cover art by Kekai Kotaki. It was a random book purchase – I saw it on the shelf and since this is “read Russians” year for me (sort of), I took it to the checkout.
This novel is at once a very good novel and a very bad novel. At 557 pages, it definitely qualifies as a typical epic fantasy novel. Ultimately, this is what is both good and bad about the novel: typical epic fantasy. Pehov nails each and every trope, cliché, and imitation found in epic fantasy novels. So, in some sense, the originality is lacking. Because if you have read the Dragonlance Chronicles series, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, and anything by Tolkien, this will seem obvious and derivative. That’s bad, right? Or maybe not. But it could be.
The main character, Harold, is a master thief and is coerced through fate and scheming to embark on a quest that he’d rather not embark on. He’s presented as some sort of honorable thief. An anti-hero hero archetype. The real reason he gets caught up in all of the trouble is based on some sort of honor code to the god of thieves regarding commissions. That’s a dubious reason to risk life and limb, right? Or is it? Not that this is new or original to any fantasy novel in history. In fact, I can name at least two recent novels that share some of this archetype: The Lies of Locke Lamora and Mistborn. Thief, antihero. Been there, done that?
There are orcs and elves and demons. And goblins. And dwarves. And gnomes. Yep – the whole gamut of races that one would find in World of Warcraft and EverQuest. There are magicians and there are also shamen. And priests. So do you see how this book really takes the cake at stuffing the usual suspects into the “typical epic fantasy”? This is a good thing. No, wait, it’s a bad thing. Or what is it?
Most of the characters act and speak precisely how one expects them to. The grizzled magician, the mentor of the main character, the band of rogues that join the quest, the elven royalty, the bad-guys, the tavern keeper: they are stereotypical and obvious. Only the main character has any depth, and honestly, he’s somewhat sarcastic and witty on a mild level. The only other character is a goblin who is the king’s jester and who is spunky and obnoxious. Everyone else is carbon copy fantasy stock character. Which is a bad thing, right? No, no. It’s a good thing. Things do as they be.
The thing is – as derivative and obvious as this novel is (and it is, folks) – it’s also fun and interesting. As discerning, literary readers we can critique it to death regarding all of it’s obvious flaws. However, at the end of the day, I’d be lying to you if I said I did not enjoy it. In fact, there are parts that were actually really (dare I say it?) gripping and interesting. Overall, this is a very fun novel. And I read novels to have fun and be entertained. For example, the part where the main character goes to the Forbidden Area of the city dabbles in ghostly Lovecraftian-scary stuff. (There are phantoms and zombies!!!!!) And, honestly, this was a thrilling part of the novel – I could have read just a whole novel of the main character’s exploits in this scenario. There are several “flashback”/hallucinations that take place that fill in background. And these were fun. I usually dread flashbacks because they tend to bore me. But, I cannot lie, these were actually kind of fun to read. And they did serve the purpose of filling in background. Late in the book, there is a death of a character and I have to admit, I was saddened by it. Silly ridiculous flat character died – but I sure did feel the tug on my Grinch-heart!
Another horrible thing (no! it’s not horrible at all. Yes it is. NO!) is that the storyline is spread out. Some fantasy novels introduce characters, setup quest, go on quest. This one takes a multitude of “sections” that would be perfect for TV series. We do not immediately jump out on the quest and head toward the main goal. Instead, the main character has a bunch of challenges and proximate goals to overcome before we even set out on the main storyline quest. In fact, and here’s the kicker, by the end of the novel – our noble heroes haven’t even made it where they are going to accomplish the big goal! So if you really want to know – you gotta buy book two (and probably book three). Not that the time in between was wasted or uninteresting, but it was surprising that the author did this. I mean, gutsy move, dude. And I am certain this turned off a lot of readers.
Speaking of which, Justin (on Goodreads and the blogger of Staffer’s Book Review) wrote this “Review” after giving this book one star. I agree with most of his complaints about the novel. Go ahead and read his commentary – because he’s correct and I think potential readers should read a variety of opinions. But, and I daresay Justin might agree with me, it was a giggling-ly entertaining puff to read. And if I was so entertained, how can I give the novel one star? I totally should not like this book as much as I did. And I should also not eat french fries, Taco Bell, or so much pizza………
So what should I rate this book? I am giving it four stars. It is stuffed with the obvious and is extremely derivative. But it’s still so much fun, I just kept turning the pages and I knew it was pulpy and stereotypical – but I was having fun reading it. So, I totally agree with every one of the criticisms levied against this novel. But I still had a great time reading it. Shame on me: I enjoyed a silly “typical epic fantasy” novel. And I went and bought book two. Russians gotta do what Russians gotta do….