CLASSIFICATION: Combining lighthearted humor and graphic violence with both traditional fantasy tropes and trope-breaking twists, The Conqueror’s Shadow is what would happen if you took Dungeons & Dragons and crossed it with the writing styles of David Eddings and Joe Abercrombie.
FORMAT/INFO: The Conqueror’s Shadow is 448 pages long divided over 28 numbered chapters, a Prologue, and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third-person via several major and supporting characters, but the book mostly focuses on Corvis Rebaine. The Conqueror’s Shadow is self-contained, but a sequel is expected to be released next year.
ANALYSIS: In addition to his experience with shared worlds, Ari Marmell also has an extensive history writing for role-playing games, and it shows in his Bantam Spectra debut, The Conqueror’s Shadow, which is rife with such common fantasy conventions as demons, ogres, gnomes, conquering warlords, sorcerers, mercenaries, spellbooks, magic weapons and armor, haunted forests, vampires, et cetera. Normally this kind of a fantasy novel wouldn’t hold my interest for long, but The Conqueror’s Shadow has several things going for it which made reading the book a pleasurable experience.
For one, The Conqueror’s Shadow never takes itself too seriously. Instead, Ari Marmell understands that his book is teeming with fantasy tropes and uses every opportunity to poke fun at them or turn them on their head, like Corvis Rebaine who is depicted as a villain in the prologue, only to be revealed as the novel’s hero. On top of that, The Conqueror’s Shadow is one of the more humorous fantasy novels you’ll find, thanks to the incessant banter of the characters:
“You tell him, you raging font of fury, you!”
“How many times do I have to order you to shut up, Khanda?”
“At least one more, obviously.”
The only problem I had with the humor is that it can be overly lighthearted, especially when compared to how graphic some of the book’s violence can get. After all, I find it a bit disorienting when the author doesn’t use words like ‘shit’ or ‘bastard’, but has no problem with exploding bodies.
Secondly, The Conqueror’s Shadow is a well-written novel. Characters may lack depth, but are extremely likable; prose is crisp; the pacing is terrific; the story is well-executed apart from a couple of missteps; and the author strikes a nice balance of humor, action and epic fantasy. Of course, this isn’t too surprising since Ari Marmell already has extensive experience as a writer, but for his first completely original novel, I thought Marmell nailed it on the head writing-wise.
Thirdly, I loved the interludes that precede every chapter except for the first one. Primarily flashbacks, these short interludes — usually one to three pages long — not only provide insight into the book’s many different characters (Corvis, Tyannon, Davro, Seilloah, Valescienn, Audriss, Jassion, Duke Lorum, Nathaniel Espa, Rheah Vhoune), their relationships with one another, and the motivations behind their actions, but they also offer a refreshing break from the main narrative, and I eagerly looked forward to reading the next one.
Finally, The Conqueror’s Shadow is just a lot of fun to read. Part of it’s because of the lighthearted humor, the likable characters, and the engrossing action, but it also has to do with the novel’s accessibility. The Conqueror’s Shadow, basically, is the kind of novel that is easy to pick up and get started, and even easier to get lost in. Plus, the book has the potential to appeal to a wide range of different readers, including fans of Dungeons & Dragons-type fantasy, humorous fantasy, and fantasy with a twist. Best of all, The Conqueror’s Shadow is self-contained. Sure, there’s supposed to be a sequel next year, but The Conqueror’s Shadow possesses a definite beginning, middle, and end, and leaves the reader completely satisfied, which is refreshing in this day and age when the fantasy book market is dominated by multi-volume epics and cliffhanger endings.
Negatively, I already mentioned the characters lacking depth and the couple of missteps with the story’s execution, but there are also issues with a plot that requires little brainpower to follow, world-building that is practically nonexistent, and undeveloped themes. Fortunately, The Conqueror’s Shadow gets away with such shortcomings because of the type of book it is. Too much world-building, characterization or in-depth thematic discussions, and the novel’s level of enjoyment would probably have lessened.
CONCLUSION: In the end, Ari Marmell’s The Conqueror’s Shadow was a major surprise. After all, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy reading The Conqueror’s Shadow, based on the comparison to David Eddings (an author I’ve outgrown), the talk of humor (which I only like in moderation, especially in fantasy), and the author’s background in shared worlds (a genre that I admit holds little appeal to me). But I did enjoy it. Very much. In fact, The Conqueror’s Shadow is one of the most enjoyable fantasy books that I’ve read in a long time, and I sincerely hope Ari Marmell serves up more of the same in his next novel.