Shadow City: Not as enjoyable as Crimson Wind

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsurban fantasy book reviews Diana Pharaoh Francis Horngate Witches 1. Bitter NightShadow City by Diana Pharaoh Francis

At the end of Crimson Wind, Max gave herself up to the demigod Scooter to save Horngate. In Shadow City, the third HORNGATE WITCHES novel, we find out what Scooter needs Max for, and also what happens at Horngate while she’s gone. Diana Pharaoh Francis has split the narrative into two points of view from the beginning: Max’s and that of her maybe-lover, Alexander. This split enables her to show both storylines in alternating chapters. Unfortunately, one of these storylines is much more riveting than the other.

Alexander’s chapters deal with life at Horngate after Max’s disappearance. Alexander has some self-pity to overcome but is soon thrust into a leadership role when a Fury threatens the covenstead. This is a direct result of an atrocity that happened in Bitter Night and is emotionally compelling, as is the interaction among the denizens of Horngate as they adjust to life without their beloved Max.

Max, meanwhile, has been drafted to travel through a supernatural abyss to a city called Chadaré, where she must help Scooter recover three lost pieces of himself to save him from certain death. Max’s commitment to helping Scooter is admirable. This plotline never grabbed me the way the Horngate events did, however, and I think there are several reasons.

One, Chadaré itself seems a little vague. That’s not to say Francis doesn’t have a strong conception of it in her mind; it’s more that there just isn’t time to show us much of it. A lengthy high fantasy novel could probably be written about its history and politics and the beings who populate it. But urban fantasy is a quicker-moving style and the Chadaré sequences are only a little over half of the book. There’s a lack of a sense that the city “exists” beyond the portions of it that Max sees.

Two, the pace is slower in Max’s chapters. For reasons of plot necessity, the Horngate story reaches its climax long before the Chadaré one, and so (for example) we end up with a brutal end-of-chapter cliffhanger at Horngate where we know people have died and are waiting to find out who — and then we jump to Max doing something much less nerve-wracking and want to shout “Auuugggggh!”

Three, the magical-apocalypse scenario has always felt like the heart of the HORNGATE WITCHES series, and so the chapters that deal with it feel like an integral part of the overarching plot while the Chadaré chapters feel like a way to keep Max away for a while so that some other things can happen.

The two threads weave together at the end for a big battle royale with high stakes. If our heroes win, Scooter survives; if they lose, they all die or are enslaved. There’s a strong sense of tension going in, but unfortunately, once battle is joined, it’s not nearly as tense or wrenching as the earlier climactic battle at Horngate.

What does work really well are the emotional aspects of the story. Francis continues to reveal more and more of the bonds among the Shadowblades and Sunspears, and now more people have been added to the Horngate “family” with touching results. Furthermore, there are deeply satisfying developments in both the Max-Alexander and Max-Giselle relationships. These interpersonal developments kept me reading even when aspects of the plot had me frustrated.

In the end, I didn’t find Shadow City as enjoyable as Crimson Wind. I hope the next book features more of Horngate and of the magical apocalypse.


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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