I received an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Allegra Pescatore’s Where Shadows Lie feels like it should be on the shelf at every bookstore in the nation published by TOR or some other huge fantasy publishing house instead of an indie title (and I say that as a fellow indie author and one who now reads more indie than traditionally-published books). It is nigh (but not quite) a perfect debut that I would recommend to any adult (more on that at the end). The biggest recommendation I can give? This will be the first time I will actually buy a book I was already given a free copy of in exchange for a review – it’s that good.
The scope is massive, approximately 33% longer than The Fellowship of the Ring (the longest volume in The Lord of the Rings), and yet it does not feel bloated. The characters are fleshed out, and with all but one (the primary antagonist in this first book) having both their vices and virtues delved into in great detail. This means, going forward, we aren’t sure who the heroes and villains will be. Just like there was one obvious villain, there is one obvious hero (Elanor, the main character), but she does have plenty of weaknesses that could cause her to either fail or become an anti-hero as the story continues in later novels. The world is finely detailed, with multiple cultures that divide both along physical boundaries as well as their patron deities.
There is action, political intrigue, and interpersonal drama in spades (sprinkled with bits of wry humor and sarcasm). The action is executed flawlessly, with easy-to-follow, exciting battles. The personal drama and character interactions also are well executed. Though in two cases (out of the dozens) personal conflicts felt a bit forced for the sake of moving the plot, the rest felt perfectly natural given the characters’ personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. The one weakness I feel the book has it occasionally catches what I call “Phantom Menace Syndrome” – there are a few chapters of pure dialogue that are meetings to either set the political backdrop or provide updates. This is not always the case – often Allegra provides context and updates to the political situation as the characters are navigating them, and other times meetings were absolutely necessary as powerful figures indeed wouldn’t make a rash decision without bringing all affected parties to the table. Still, I feel there were a handful of meetings that could have been snipped and the information conveyed naturally as the characters act in the world.
But these are minor gripes. The book was so exciting it often caused me to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning before needing to be at work by 9 AM, just trying to figure out what happens next. And, as I said at the start, this is the first time I couldn’t tell I was reading an indie book. Some of that was the technical quality is superior to any indie book (and even many small press books) I have read, but the main thing is the book, in spite of its length, was incredibly lean. Every word means something, advances either the plot or a character in some way, and yet there was no lack of depth in the world. That is a feat I have never seen in an indie before. If someone were to ask me to provide them a book that proved indie books can be just as good as those that come from the big publishers, this will be the book I recommend.
To clarify what I said earlier about recommending this book
to any adult, there are some mature themes and scenes in this book. Though they
do not come anywhere near overwhelming the book, there are two explicit love-making
scenes, many F-bombs (90% by one character), and it also contains both
homosexual and bisexual characters (the last of which will be seen as a
positive by many). Some people, especially of a religious background, may not
be comfortable with the book because of this. However, as a devout Christian
myself, I still found myself crazily enjoying the book (though I did become a skimmer
during the love-making scenes). But then again, I do not share the conviction
of boycotting a book that includes things that contradict our faith. While I do
not include such things in my own books, I very much believe in letting
characters in artistic mediums reflect real people, and all of these things are
found in and are a part of humanity as we know it. Where Shadows Lie is not a story
that exists to take a side and preach about our culture wars, but rather seeks
to transport the reader to another world with its own conflicts and its individual
characters’ conflicts within it. In fact, because the sexuality of any
character is not the focus of the book at all, I would go so far as to recommend
the book to some Christians I know who, for the sake of our mission of showing
Christ’s love to all, need to learn to be able to see beyond someone’s sexuality
(without being blind to it) for the shared humanity common to all. As CS Lewis pointed,
we are called to love everyone as we love ourselves, but that does not mean we
have to like everything about everyone, and, if we were honest, there are
things about ourselves we don’t like either. But we still take care of
ourselves and both hope for and work towards making both ourselves and our
circumstances better. The LGBTQ+ community will celebrate the inclusion, but
even those of us who disagree can grow and learn from a book that does an outstanding
job creating such complete characters that their sexuality is only a part of
their character, not their entire (not even the main factor of their) identity.
Overall, I rate this book 4/5 stars – the missing star for the Phantom Menace Syndrome bits and two forced personal conflict scenes, and I am eager and excited for the next book!