You could make an argument for establishing a new sub-genre called something like “assassin fantasy,” given the number of novels currently on the shelves with heroes in that grim and surprisingly popular profession. So when the cover of Shadow’s Son, Jon Sprunk‘s debut novel, shows a man wearing a hood and flashing a set of matching knives, it’s not hard to predict the main character’s occupation before even opening the book.
And yes, right in the opening scene, the novel’s protagonist — Caim — is indeed found secretly observing a noble before attempting to assassinate him. After completing the job and escaping by using his mysterious “shadow” powers, Caim picks up another assignment that was recently abandoned by his colleague Ral. However, when Caim arrives at the house of the target — a wealthy man recently retired from the highest circles of power — he finds him already murdered, setting off a plot that will involve the future of the empire…
In the increasingly popular sub-genre of assassin fantasy (yep, I’ve decided to name it — set aside a shelf, Barnes & Noble), Shadow’s Son is a competent, entertaining, but unfortunately predictable new entry. What Jon Sprunk does best is pacing: the story starts off with a bang and never slows down, providing steady doses of action and excitement throughout the novel. Shadow’s Son weighs in at just under 300 pages, divided into 32 relatively short chapters, which together with the solid pace makes it a fast, entertaining page-turner of a novel.
Most of the characters, however, are fairly two-dimensional templates, so recognizable that they feel as if they wandered into Shadow’s Son from other novels: the spoiled noble girl, the overly ambitious young soldier, the rustic ersatz father figure… and unfortunately our protagonist Caim, the grim but goodhearted assassin whose tortured past is broadly hinted at in a few short flashbacks early on to set the tone. Even his companion, a tiny but shapely female spirit named Kit who is only visible to Caim, provides little more than some tired bickering for most of the novel (although her inclusion on Michael Kormack‘s lovely cover illustration thankfully lifts it above the now standard “hooded assassin” image).
While the story is expertly paced (what a pleasant surprise in a debut novel!), it unfortunately feels bland and predictable. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a Hollywood movie that had been through a few too many test audiences, resulting in a story that frankly felt a bit cookie-cutter. But, on the plus side again, Jon Sprunk’s prose style is as smooth and polished as his pacing, perfectly appropriate for the story and only occasionally going overboard, e.g. when describing someone’s tonsure as being “the color of blood from a lung wound.”
Still, it speaks to Jon Sprunk’s promise as a new author that he put together such a smooth read in his debut, and I for one am very curious to see what he’ll come up with in the future. Shadow’s Son is a competent but unfortunately predictable fantasy novel that should still please readers who are looking for an entertaining, fast-paced assassin story and who are willing to overlook the familiarity of some of its elements. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in thrills and sheer readability. Ultimately, Shadow’s Son is a surprisingly well-crafted piece of fiction for a debut novel, indicating Jon Sprunk is an author to watch in the future.