Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara is a book about outgrowing a victim mentality, finding your strength and embracing your purpose. It would be a nice book to give to a 12- or 13-year-old girl, especially one who may be struggling with identity or self-esteem issues. Two things would stop me from sharing it: inadequate world-building and poor writing.
Cast in Shadow’s Kaylin is a “Grounded Hawk,” a human in a law enforcement / espionage unit controlled by the winged race called the Ariens, in the city of Elantra. Kaylin’s sergeant is a Leontine, a lion-like humanoid, and two of her friends are Barrani, a virtually immortal race. There are also dragon lords, although they look human — or humanish — most of the time.
Surrounding the city center is a series of slums or mean streets called fiefs. Kaylin grew up in such a fief, called Nightshade. She was orphaned, but a streetwise boy named Severn took her in. Kaylin and Severn took in two more orphans and created a family, but then mysterious glyphs began to appear on Kaylin’s skin, marks like tattoos, rising spontaneously. Children in the fief began to die, their bodies found later, missing organs, marked with glyphs like Kaylin’s. After Severn committed a horrifying act of betrayal, Kaylin fled the fiefs and found her way into the Hawks.
Seven years have passed, and now the murders have started again. Against her will and her better judgment, Kaylin is teamed with Severn, who now belongs to the cadre of government assassins called the Shadow Wolves, and a dragon lord named Tiamaris. She trusts neither of them, but is determined that no more children will die.
Together Severn, Kaylin and Tiamaris cycle back and forth between the Hawk tower and the Nightshade fief. Kaylin also visits an orphanage run by a Leontine female. Despite their constant shuttling from place to place, the plot feels static. This continues to be a problem throughout the book, even up to what is, or should be, an exciting climax.
One thing works extremely well: the back-story of Kaylin and Severn, and the thing Severn did that drove Kaylin from him. Kaylin’s account of the events is harrowing, and Severn’s motivations are quickly made clear to the reader, making his character complex and compelling.
Kaylin has healing powers, a rare gift that seems connected to the marks on her body. She has not kept her gift particularly secret but Grammyre, the Hawklord, has protected her. She’s something of a pet of his. It is not clear whether this is because she is a wonderful person or because of the marks and his sense that she is something strange and powerful. The Barrani outcast, Nightshade, who rules the fief, is also interested in her and the marks on her skin. He says they are words in an ancient tongue that even he cannot decipher. They may in fact be names, names of the ancient dead.
Sagara explains the variety of sentient species by implying strongly that magic somehow drew some of them to Elantra from different dimensions. She is trying to give us a police-procedural-style fantasy mystery, creating a city full of diverse citizens, but the beat-cop part of the story simply does not work. Of her different species, her conception of the dragon lords seems the most complete, although it is obvious the Leontines are her favorite. Because so little of the world and the city is revealed in the book, the cultural development of the Leontines glitched for me. Leontine cultural mores seem more canine than feline, and Sagara confuses this even more by throwing in the Wolves without telling us whether some of them, like the Hawks, are actual wolves. Instead of showing us the cultures, she wastes prose with tepid jokes about how Kaylin’s always late. The Hawklord and others use magical mirrors to call up images of past events, excavated memories or autopsies. It’s just magical video, about as fantastical as something you’d see on Criminal Minds. Marcus, the Leontine sergeant, grouses throughout the book about “paperwork” but there is no pay-off to that set-up either because there is no paperwork. This is all supposed to evoke the feeling of the bullpen, the overworked urban cop setting in our world, and it fails. This isn’t supposed to be our world.
Small but grounding details are never given. How big is Elantra? Is it a port city? Are there farms surrounding it, or do they import food? Does it have parks? Does it have sewage plants? How did the Ariens become trusted enough by the dragon-lord emperor to be his “eyes on the street?” Is there any kind of transport except walking? The fiefs are somewhat better drawn, but this city never comes to life. Sagara has let her imagination out to play in Cast in Shadow, but it takes a disciplined writer’s mind to conjure the concrete details needed to make a place seem real, and I do not see evidence of that discipline in this book.
Many modifiers. Choppy sentence fragments. For emphasis. Annoying. Really. When she isn’t chopping up sentences, Sagara employs a conversational, discursive style that works well for a first person narrator in a light, romantic book, because we like to think our protagonist is talking right to us, but fails in third person in a book about children being sacrificed.
The ideas here, though, are good. If you find the book used and inexpensive there’s no reason not to pick it up, especially if a long wait or an airplane ride is in your future.