Shadow Prowler and Shadow Chaser are the first two books, respectively, of the Chronicles of Siala trilogy by Russian author Alexey Pehov. The series is a best-seller and award-winner in Russia, and has been translated into English by Andrew Bromfield (translator of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series) for Tor.
The world of Siala has seen several Ages. Only the ogres survived from the Dark Era into the succeeding Grey Era, which saw the arrival of the Orcs and Elves (immediate mortal enemies) into the world. Dwarves and gnomes appeared next, and though the two got along at first, they have since become fierce enemies. The Era of Accomplishments followed with the arrival of humans.
The series takes place in the Era of Dreams, when the Nameless One (a dark sorcerer) begins to rise once again, massing a huge army of ogres, giants and other creatures of the Desolate Lands. Meanwhile, the Orcs are also readying to attack and a previously unknown threat — The Master — appears on stage. The only chance to defeat the Nameless One is apparently an ancient magic horn. The only problem is, the horn has been buried in the Hrad Spein (The Palace of Bones) an ages-old underground burial site for all the races, far away through the land of the orcs and elves, a massive site that over the centuries has been filled with horrors and traps.
In Shadow Prowler, a human master-thief named Harold is tapped to be part of the third attempt to retrieve the horn. The first quarter or so of the novel introduces us to Harold, then shows us how he is forced into taking on his king’s Commission to seek the horn. When it is learned that the only maps of Hrad Spein lie in the Stain, a mysterious section of the city walled off by sorcery from which almost nobody has ever returned, Harold must find a way in and then out with the plans. Meanwhile, he is targeted for death by minions of both the Nameless One and the Master. Eventually, he sets out for Hrad Spein with a small band that includes ten Wild Hearts (the best, most experienced human soldiers who man the border with the Desolate Lands), a small band of Elves including the nobleborn Miralissa, and an odd pair of best friends — the dwarf Deler and the gnome Halla. The final member of the group is the king’s jester Kli-Kli, a goblin who plays the fool but seems far more knowledgeable about things, including an ancient prophecy that seems to point to Harold being the Dancer With Shadows who will save the world. Shadow Prowler ends with the group reaching the city of Ranneng, though not without having suffered losses and setbacks along the way. Shadow Chaser picks up almost immediately afterward and follows the band as they continue their journey, facing sorcerous attacks and battles along the way, until they finally reach the last stage before the Palace of Bones itself — the Forests of Zagabra, home to fierce elves, orcs, and goblins.
One problem with the series can be seen right away from the description — the overly familiar setting and basic plot: goblins, orcs, dwarves, elves (with some of them fiercely opposed to one another), wizards, an evil dark sorcerer rising once more, a magical talisman that will defeat him, an underground palace of beauty and horror, a master-thief, verse prophecy, a small band of outnumbered heroes trying to sneak under the dark one’s radar. It all has a been-there-done-that feel to it (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, Legolas and Gimli, to name just two obvious analogues) and while Pehov throws in a few twists — elves are fanged and swarthy (but still great archers, natch), gnomes have invented gunpowder, a few kinds of undead — it isn’t quite enough to overcome the familiarity of character types and plot events. One exception to this is the appearance of a long-dead (or quasi-dead) magician, but he is used far too sparingly.
It doesn’t help that the novels, which are episodic in nature, are structured so straightforwardly, moving from point A to point B to point C (or plot event A to plot event B…) geographically and chronologically step by step with the group. The only times the linear structure breaks are those few occasions when Harold has some visions of long-past events. Unfortunately, for various reasons, they stand out amidst the novels as much more interesting — more compelling, tense, and creative — since many of the real-time events are relatively pedestrian.
The main character, Harold, is solidly engaging, but pales a bit as time goes on. The others don’t really stand out much at all as separate creations, blurring into a group of stock veteran soldier or aloof elf types. The same holds true for the villains (if all are in fact villains), whether it be a pale assassin or an evil sorcerous. None get enough page time to register as more than an obstacle, and an overly familiar one at that. The only character beyond Harold who really sticks out is Kli-Kli. Unfortunately, while he has lots of potential due to the complexity of his dual nature (a fool who knows a lot), he’s far too often simply annoying (not quite Jar Jar Binks, but I’d be lying if I said that name didn’t flash before my eyes a few times).
Shadow Prowler seriously bogs down in the last third of the book and Shadow Chaser never picks it up again; I really struggled to finish. I’ll continue on to see if the story is redeemed in its climax, but at this point, I can’t recommend beginning it. Check back next year.