When I read Havemercy last year, I was pleasantly surprised. The cover and blurb were highly misleading but the type of book I ended up getting was just up my alley, the characters so interesting that I knew I wanted to discover more of that world of iron dragons and magicians. Shadow Magic is similar in tone and focus, but it takes place in the Ke-Han empire, a place somewhat based on feudal Japan/China.
by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett
Published by: Spectra, 2009
ebook: 464 pages
Series: Metal Dragons #2
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: On the seventh and final day of mourning for the loss of the war, my brother Iseul came to my chambers to tell me that our father was dead.
Led to victory by its magic-fueled Dragon Corps, Volstov has sent a delegation to its conquered neighbors to work out the long-awaited terms of peace. Among those in the party are the decorated war hero General Alcibiades and the formerly exiled magician Caius Greylace. But even this mismatched pair can’t help but notice that their defeated enemies aren’t being very cooperative. The hidden truth is that the new emperor is harboring a treacherous secret—and once it is revealed, Alcibiades and Caius may be powerless to stop it.
With their only ally an exiled prince now fleeing his brother’s assassins, the countryside rife with terror, and Alcibiades and Caius all but prisoners, it will take the most powerful kind of magic to heal the rift between two strife-worn lands and unite two peoples against a common enemy: shadow magic.
Shadow Magic continues where Havemercy left off, although with a different set of characters. The war is won and the Esar sends a delegation of wizards and diplomats to the Ke-Han court in order to work out the details of the peace treaty. Quiet and grumpy Alcibiades is not happy to be paired up with the flamboyant young Caius Greylace who seems to stick his nose into anything, whether it’s his business or not. But Caius is what he gets and, after many fights about appropriate clothing and Ke-Han food, a sort of friendship develops between the two unlikely companions.
The two remaining protagonists are the younger prince, Mamoru, and his loyal servant Kouje. Once the new emperor Iseul declares Mamoru a traitor, Kouje takes matters into his own hands and gets the prince out of the palace. They spend most of the novel as fugitives. Hunting rabbits in the forest and sleeping on the naked ground are not the worst things prince and servant have to deal with, however. For Kouje, trained from childhood to serve his master, it is almost worse that he suddenly has to treat Mamoru like an equal. Or – on some occasions – as beneath him in status. The Ke-Han take their duty and honor very seriously and I think the authors did a fantastic job in conveying just how deep these beliefs are ingrained in their culture. Mamoru himself is a lovable young man who has to deal not only with the death of his father and the loss of the war, but also the betrayal of his own brother.
My favorite part, though, was the dynamic between Alcibiades and Caius. The constant bickering, the annoyance on Alcibiades’ part and the Caius’ “oh, my dear”s made for great humor in an otherwise serious book. When two characters seem so unfit for each other’s friendship, ever little gesture doubles in meaning. Alcibiades, for example, refuses to politely wear blue – the traditional Ke-Han colour – and continues to appear to formal dinners in Volstovic red. So Caius, in an attempt at friendship, has robes made in red for himself to show loyalty, or affection, or… who knows what really toward Alcibiades. Theirs is an interesting relationship because I never knew quite where I stood with Caius. His flamboyant openness was infectious and made me just as eager to get to know Ke-Han culture as he was himself.
I loved discovering art and food and theater with Caius and the Ke-Han warlord Temur. The fact that the diplomats react differently to, say, Ke-Han cuisine, was realistic and, at times, amusing. While Caius is eager to learn new things and try what Ke-Han has to offer, Alcibiades would much rather have some traditional Volstov food and people whose faces show emotions.
Shadow Magic may contain some magic at the end, but it is first and foremost a fantasy of manners that examines cultural differences and the things that unite us, no matter how we grew up. It was a lovely experience both for the amazing characters and the world-building. Mamoru and Kouje travel the countryside, showing the readers a world beyond the splendor of the palace and that even within one’s own culture, there are vast differenences between social stations. At the palace, the Volstovic diplomats mostly illustrated what divides Ke-Han culture from Vostolv culture and so the authors draw a beautiful picture of both empires.
Although it is a quiet book whose focus is character development, there are scenes that could be considered action-packed. Alcibiades training sword-fighting with a Ke-Han warlord almost took my breath away. The ending itself is full of action and magic – and maybe because of that, it felt a little rushed. Everything else took such careful planning, such slow developing, that the resolution came almost too quickly. But I’m not complaining, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. Towards the end, a character from Havemercy has a cameo and I’m told the next book brings back two of my favorite protagonists from that novel as well.
Either way, I am nowhere near done exploring this world. Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett have created a beautiful setting (still with very few women, although we do get Josette who even has some lines) and characters that stick with you. Whether their relationship is romantic in nature or merely platonic, I loved getting to know them and seeing them grow (both personally and on each other). Let’s see what the authors have in store for me with their next book.
RATING: 7,5/10 – very good, leaning towards an 8
The Metal Dragons/Havemercy Series:
- Shadow Magic
- Dragon Soul
- Steel Hands