Shadow Prowler, the first fantasy novel by Russian author Alexey Pehov to be translated to English, pulls out every fantasy cliché in the book: elves, dwarves, orcs, ogres, goblins, guilds of thieves and assassins, and an evil overlord (the “Nameless One”) who is about to awaken and take over the land with an army of evil beasties. Shadow Harold (yes, that’s his name) is a master thief who, against his will, gets involved in rescuing the world from said Nameless One. To do so, he must retrieve a magical doohickey (the Rainbow Horn) from someplace dark and scary in, yes, the Desolate Lands. If you wanted to play a drinking game, taking a shot whenever Shadow Prowler matches up with entries in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones, you’d be under the table in no time.
Shadow Prowler initially reads a bit like Steven Brust: the thief Shadow Harold narrates the story in the first person, in a style similar to — but much less entertaining than — the assassin Vlad Taltos. (The similarity to Brust helps explain why I persisted through almost 300 pages.) Shadow Harold is a capable, somewhat standard criminal-hero, a bit full of himself but definitely appropriate for the story. However, he has an annoying tendency to switch tenses from paragraph to paragraph; most of the main action is narrated in the past tense, but Shadow Harold’s occasional thoughts about the action are told in the present tense.It reminded me of a movie actor who occasionally turns to the camera to address the viewers directly; I found this Ferris Bueller-like narrative technique very confusing and jarring. Strangely, Alexey Pehov abandons this technique later on in the novel, but that only reinforces the impression that this novel could have benefited from more careful editing. (Still, I didn’t mind when the present tense interruptions ended, because imagining a thief called Shadow Harold as a mix between Vlad Taltos and Ferris Bueller was giving me spectacular headaches and didn’t help me get immersed in the novel at all.)
There are some original ideas and nice city descriptions in Shadow Prowler, and the plot moves along at a pleasantly fast pace, but to balance out those few positives, the dark passages in the novel are unconvincing, the humor is mostly juvenile and predictable, the action scenes just aren’t exciting, and the characters are mostly flat stereotypes. There’s a goblin court jester who is initially just plain annoying, but who is obviously being set up for a more meaningful role later on (Robin Hobb‘s Fool, anyone?). The elven princess Miralissa is the only important female character in the otherwise all-male cast, so obviously the male characters have to point out her feminine charms several times.
I lost all interest in Shadow Prowler about 100 pages from the end, started skimming pages to see if could at least get to the end, and finally gave up completely about 50 pages out, because I realized this is only the first book in a trilogy and nothing could convince me to read the sequels. People who pick this up because it was translated by Andrew Bromfield (who also translated Sergei Lukyanenko’s books) will be sorely disappointed.