Jon Sprunk is a relative newcomer to the fantasy field, this being only his third novel, the conclusion to a trilogy. And a right satisfying conclusion it is, at that. The story that was begun in Shadow’s Son (reviewed here) and continued in Shadow’s Lure (reviewed here) wraps up in Shadow’s Master. This one is darker, bloodier, and better than its predecessors.
While I won’t give any spoilers to the present book, I might let a few slip from the previous volumes. Just giving you notice.
The story picks up where the previous novel left off. Caim, accompanied by three companions, is heading north into the Northern Marches. There’s something in his head that’s pulling him in that direction. As she died, his aunt Sybelle told him to look for a dark fortress if he wants to find out what happened to his mother. Caim thinks he’ll find her when he finds whatever seems to be calling him.
Meanwhile, in Nimea, Josie has survived several assassination attempts and much political intrigue. She, too, is heading north, ostensibly to tour the northern portions of her kingdom, but in reality she’s searching for Caim. If she can’t find him, she at least hopes to find some word of him. She carries his child, something that would give Lady Philomena apoplexy if she knew. What Josie finds is squabbling nobles, starving peasants, and an invading army.
Most of the book focuses on Caim. The land he travels is blighted, with the Sun never shining, even on the longest day of summer. The people barely manage to survive, and those that do, do so by the sword. If Caim is to reach his destination, he’s going to have to do it over spilled blood.
Sprunk’s handling of the characters shows greater depth than in his previous works, not that those works didn’t show depth of character. They did. It’s just that Sprunk is maturing as a writer, growing and expanding. Much of the territory over which Caim travels is bleak, and the story reflects that. While Caim struggles to understand his feelings for Josie and his conflicting feelings for Kit, Josie is wrestling with her feelings for Caim as well as the attractive young nobleman who joins her guard. All of this is in addition to the deaths that Caim and Josie have on their consciences, and knowing that they both have to make decisions that will cost people their lives.
To my mind, though, it was the minor character of Balaam who was one of the most fascinating. Favored servant of Caim’s grandfather, Sprunk shows us enough of the choices the man has made to paint a picture of regrets and internal conflicts. This is more than just a bad guy from central casting. This is one area in which Sprunk’s skills can be seen to have matured. None of his villains are truly evil except for one, and even with that one the evil is understandable. Instead, Sprunk gives his villains motives, and noble motives at that, at least from their point of view. Balaam at one points says that if he’s a killer, at least he’s a killer for a cause while Caim is a killer for profit. While Sprunk doesn’t beat the reader over the head with them, he does raise some philosophical issues for which there aren’t always easy answers. Honor, duty, and sacrifice all play a role in the story. Without them, this would be a far lesser book and a far more generic plot.
There’s plenty of action and combat, and Sprunk handles it with finesse. Fans of action oriented sword and sorcery will find plenty to cheer about here.
I don’t know if Sprunk plans on returning to this world. He leaves enough loose ends that further volumes could follow naturally. I would especially like to see more of Josie. By the end of the book, she has grown into the role of Empress and is a woman not to be trifled with. There is still enough unresolved intrigue for at least one novel centered on her.
Shadow’s Master is scheduled for a March release. I haven’t been in a bookstore in a few weeks, so I don’t know if it’s on the shelves or not. Barnes and Noble and Amazon both list it, but Amazon shows a release date of March 27. I’ve seen Pyr books in B&N before their release date, so you may be able to snag a copy sooner than the end of the month. This one is an example of why Pyr is one of the best publishers of fantasy and science fiction around.