Tuesday, 13 April 2010
‘Shadow Prowler’ – Alexhey Pehov (Tor)
There’s nothing wrong with recent genre works (and we all know the ones that I mean...) where tropes are regularly challenged and subverted. After all, that’s the way in which a genre evolves and (hopefully) stays fresh and interesting. That’s certainly been my experience of fantasy fiction over the last few years.
Every so often though, I find myself wanting something a little different. I want the thief to have a heart of gold and pass up the chance of riches in order to help a starving family. I want the kitchen boy to go on a quest, slay a monster and, if that wasn’t enough, for everyone to be genuinely surprised when it turns out said kitchen boy is the long lost heir to the throne. I want a bunch of adventurers to go off on a quest for a magical object and find themselves pawns in a game of prophecy. I want things to be more than a little old school.
The translation of Alexey Pehov’s ‘Shadow Prowler’ offered me the chance of just that. It wasn’t bad either. Not brilliant but not bad at all...
The Nameless One is stirring in the North; raising a dark army of orcs, ogres and other monsters to sweep all before them and establish his dominion over the land. A long lost magical artefact could hold the key to an unlikely victory and it falls to the unlikeliest of people to get his hands on it. Shadow Harold would much rather be building on his reputation as a master thief and relieving the rich of their goods in the comfort of his home city. Harold is far too clever for his own good though and finds himself trapped into taking on the task of stealing a magical talisman from the world’s largest mausoleum. Before he can do any of that however, Shadow Harold must find the maps that will show him where he needs to go. These maps are in the one area of the city devastated by a magical conflagration and an area from which foolhardy thieves very rarely return...
With a plot like this you know exactly what you’re going to be getting from the story; the downside is that with a plot like this you know exactly what you’re going to be getting from the story. It depends what kind of a mood you’re in really. If you’re after fantasy that does things a little differently then this may not be the book for you. The direction of the plot is very clear and you can tell with some degree of certainty what’s going to happen in five pages time. As I said though, I was in the mood for something a little old school and ‘Shadow Prowler’ was just the ticket.
The bottom line is that ‘Shadow Prowler’ is a lot of fun indeed although I was left wondering how effective the translation had been. While I never got the impression that anything significant was missing (events flowed into each other with no jarring interruptions to the plot) it was more the tone of the piece that had me wondering if something was amiss.
There are laughs and excitement to be had but, on the whole, I found the prose to be of a ‘dry, lay the facts of the story on the table without really dressing them up’ nature. I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not keen on flowery prose but ‘Shadow Prowler’ went a little too far the other way. It was like looking at a drawing that hadn’t been coloured in... Like I said, the story flowed fine but the sometimes plodding nature of the prose slowed things down when they really needed to be moving a lot more quickly. When things did speed up I found myself wishing that the rest of the book could be like that!
As was the case with ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ I found myself unsure as to why this was so. Was something lost in the translation or was the translator (Andrew Bromfield) bang on the money and this is how Pehov writes? Either way, the occasional flatness of the prose proved to be an initial obstacle to my engaging with the book.
It was Harold’s character that made me stick with the book though and I ended up being glad that I did. Once you get used to the narrative then, as I said, there are laughs and excitement to be had with a character who is refreshingly honest about who he is and where he is going. Shadow Harold is a thief whose sole aspiration is to be a better thief than all the others. His wry internal monologue is the best kind of guide through the dark alleyways of the city and it’s fun to watch him catch his enemies out. Our man can also fight when he’s cornered and this makes for some exciting moments when Harold’s skill with a knife is the only thing that stands between him and certain death. My favourite piece, in this respect, was Harold’s journey through the Forbidden Territories of the city. Anything that combines zombies with creepy little girls always gets the thumbs up from me and it was all handled very well here.
It’s not just Harold who’s fun to be around. The supporting cast may well fit all the requirements for a D&D band but Pehov teases out enough about them to make Kli-Kli, Miralissa and the Wild Hearts interesting characters that don’t overpower the story. Kli-Kli is particularly fascinating to follow as all the established tropes suggest that there is more to him than there seems but, at the same time, it’s made equally clear that he really could just be an annoying little goblin with a nasty line in practical jokes. There are a few things that will have me coming back to check out the sequel and Kli-Kli is definitely one of them.
‘Shadow Prowler’ doesn’t bring anything new to the table at all, and I’m still wondering if there’s a problem with the translation, but it is a lot of fun and has me waiting for the sequel to arrive. If you want to read the kind of fantasy you were reading twenty years ago then you really can’t go too far wrong with this.
Eight and a Half out of Ten