Look, writing is hard. A literary cook has to have a good recipe, but be ready at a moment’s notice to improvise literary elements to produce just the right flavors to appeal to the reader. In essence, to produce a fine literary repast is both an art and a science, requiring keeping on top of the large picture as well as the ability to micro-manage every story point. If anything goes wrong, it can bring the whole meal down but if it all goes right, the writer creates something truly special. The Shadow’s Relic is an excellent example of this principle of the micro and the macro intermingling to produce brilliance or mediocrity. The question is … which does it produce?
Before we delve deeper, it’s time to recite the Starving Author rules:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre.
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
The Shadow’s Relic has a lot of good ideas. Mr. Brogan has devised an intriguing plot at the macro level and certainly delivers on that … in the first and second acts. The first third of the book, especially, delivers strongly on the promise of an alternate Earth just a step out of tune with our own, set right after the American Revolution in one of the most adventure-packed areas of the world at the time, the Caribbean. Pirates, magic, adventure, and elements of horror and mystery are introduced early, making for a potent combination of flavors promising a fantastic repast to come.
The main two characters are fairly well depicted with fair characterization. I especially like that, for the most part, the female lead is shown to be exceptionally capable on her own. The major issue that crops up is that there is not much of a character arc for either protagonist, which is especially maddening in that there are secrets about each character that are introduced almost immediately and never really expounded on. Understandably, this is the first book of a series and some things must be saved for later installments, but there isn’t so much as a few small crumbs to try to tide over the reader until the next book. No real foreshadowing and only a few small points of information for the readers to think about until the next book.
Unfortunately, despite this strong start and relatively potent characters, the meal starts to sour and it is entirely the fault of execution. The overall story, if broken down to basic terms, remains strong and technically all the right points are hit in the right order. Each point, though, is unpolished. For example, let’s examine the pacing. Mr. Brogan’s style is that of short chapters and lots of them and there is nothing wrong with that. However, a common formula in the third act is ‘crisis is introduced in the protagonist’s path, crisis resolved after one chapter, next crisis comes up, repeat’.
What this leads to is a constant cycle of incidents that are depicted as serious danger simply evaporating after a page or three. After several of these, I found the flavor dulled, a constant assault of spices that somehow didn’t build drama but boredom. Even the dramatic confrontation with the antagonist lasts one chapter, though it was a long chapter. The rapid fire staccato of events that all resolve quickly for the protagonists totally shattered the pacing.
Add on to that a stream of other minor polish issues. There are a lot of anachronistic bits of dialogue. Nut-job, booze cruise, and tiki torches, among other things, just weren’t in the language in the 18th Century and every one of those just chips away at immersion. A main character becomes renowned throughout the entire Caribbean, a collection of islands during a massive disaster and with total lack of mass communication in that time period, within weeks. Certain terms are used continually by everyone with no pause (I strangely don’t think I want to hear the word ‘team’ for some time after this book) which detracts some from the individuality of the characters’ speech patterns. It’s all minor, but it all adds up to detract from the overall work.
Okay, so I’ve said some very good things and some not-so-good things about this historical fantasy meal I’ve just gobbled down. Obviously, you all want to know how to measured up in the end. Well, The Shadow’s Relic has some fantastic core ideas with an interesting plot and some well-imagined protagonists. However, it’s hobbled by horrific pacing in the last act, a lack of clues to the big mysteries of the series, shallow character arcs, and a general lack of polish. All of that said, the final meal isn’t bad, but it isn’t excellent. I would love to see Mr. Brogan go back to the kitchen and give the recipe some revisions, because there is real potential here waiting to come out. Until then, though, all I can really say is that this promising meal is, at best, average.
FINAL VERDICT: *** (A strong first course and imaginative concepts get bogged down by a rushed third act and a general lack of polish.)