Novels about gods and demons, monsters and magic, tend to lose me early on. When I think about it for a moment, this seems odd given the love I’ve had for mythology since I was a child. I wasn’t into dinosaurs as a seven/eight year old boy, I was into Edith Hamilton. So maybe I’ve just convinced myself I’m burnt out.
In an effort to revise my tastes I’ve come to Bruce Blake’s When Shadows Fall, the first book of his new epic fantasy series The Small Gods.
When Shadows Fall is superbly paced and character driven. For a story premised on prophecy, as a reader it’s less about figuring out some divine mystery and more about watching characters discover their fates. Blake isn’t a new author (he’s written two other fantasy series), so we’re encountering a steady hand as we enter the world of Small Gods and When Shadows Fall is a very promising start.
When Shadows Fall
Paper Gold Publishing, 2015
To raise the Smalls Gods, a Small God must die.
Blake presents When Shadows Fall in a very cinematic and episodic style. After the novel’s lore prologue, we are thrown into an action packed doomsday scene setting the table for the adventures that are about to begin. The action dissipates as readers are introduced to the points of view of the novels main characters: Horace, a shipwrecked sailor; Ailyssa, a priestess; Teryk and Danya, a sheltered prince and princess; and Thorn, a feral-ish Small God. Chapters switch between these characters’ adventures and POV, each episode enriching the novel’s overall story.
The only real problem I have with this style is that Blake has made the apparently random decision to have every Horace chapter be narrated in an omniscient third person that speaks in the same broken pirate slur as the sailor:
His smooth face were free o’ whiskers, with a spot o’ dried blood on his chin where he’d nicked himself shavin’ and nobody’d bothered tellin’ him.
This wouldn’t be a problem if all the other character chapters were also written in the tone of the character being presented, but they aren’t. The narrator of the novel only ever changes style for Horace and there is absolutely no reason for it other than novelty. For me, this detracts from the narrative becoming too easily an annoyance that overcomes what’s being conveyed. By the third Horace chapter, I couldn’t get the voice of the Sea Captain from The Venture Bros. out of my head as the narrative voice.
A novel with recurring and un-ironic ‘talk like a pirate’ chapters is irksome. Fortunately, each chapter is short so that the distaste doesn’t linger but it’s a flaw in the storytelling.
However, it can be overcome and should be because Blake’s weaving of storylines is rather well done. Taking a less-is-more approach, he keeps us focused on the characters. In fact, this is done to such a degree that there’s very little in the way of setting. There are few descriptions of place and very few queues at help a reader construct the world. With descriptive setting as an afterthought, the novel succeeds or fails on the strength of the characters and their relationships.
Here is where the excessively sheltered prince Teryk and princess Danya come into play. Obviously parallels to the brother and sister Small Gods introduced in the novel’s action-packed opening, these two royal siblings are the heart of the story. Teryk is the worst kind of privileged child. Not so much spoiled as the aristocratic version of home-schooled into stupidity. He cannot fight for real because his trainers always let him win. He is not allowed outside of the palace so has absolutely no knowledge of ‘the real world.’ He has internalized his privilege to such a degree that he is rash and bored, unable to comprehend that the world is anything but there for him.
When the siblings discover a scroll prophesying the return of the Small Gods, Teryk interprets it as conveying his destiny because it contains the phrase “firstborn child of the rightful king” and he can’t imagine it applying to anyone else from any other time. Even though his sister (a princess who is a skilled fighter and, although equally as sheltered, somehow much more perceptive) makes this point, and we learn through is own speech that his family took the throne by force thus voiding the whole ‘rightful king’ angle, Teryk can’t see beyond his nose.
This is our story, an ill-prepared, headstrong boy goes off into a world to seek adventure only to discover everything is much, much more complicated, complex, and dire than he ever imagined. Not quite a Bildungsroman, but enough of one to ground our expectations and serve as a sheath for the real story.
Perhaps the most fascinating character in the novel is Ailyssa, a preiestess in a Goddess fertility cult. She is expelled from her religion because she cannot have children anymore, because of menopause. Her expulsion from her temple is a griping scene that avoids melodrama because Ailyssa’s internal life has been compellingly presented in previous chapters. It makes for a wonderful contrast to Teryk’s runaway brat story (a story that, fortunately, is merely the impetus for the true adventure).
When Shadows Fall opens with action and end with it. Between is woven a solid foundation for a fantasy series, where characters have won you over and repelled you. There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in the story, no ‘bad guy’ or ‘hero.’ We’re not there yet but the suggestions and implications are there and that’s what entices us to read on.
Bruce Blake lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. When pressing issues like shoveling snow and building igloos don’t take up his spare time, Bruce can be found taking the dog sled to the nearest coffee shop to work on his short stories and novels.