Book Review: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Licanius Trilogy
Publisher: Orbit (November 8, 2016)
Length: 693 pages
Whenever I hear about an indie fantasy that makes the jump to a traditional publishing house, it always piques my curiosity and of course The Shadow of What Was Lost was no exception. Fast forward to the moment I finished reading the book, and I all I have to say is: I am impressed. This is James Islington’s first novel, and though that sometimes shows in the raw quality the writing, overall it is a solid series opener and I can certainly understand the reason for all the attention and praise.
The first part of the story introduces us to an interesting lore-filled world. Two decades have passed since the Augurs were defeated and wiped out. These were powerful individuals with god-like abilities which they used to enslave the Gifted, other magic users who were forced to serve their stronger masters. The Gifted themselves were only spared retribution following the rebellion because they agreed to uphold the Four Tenets, promising to adhere to the rules which would keep their own powers in check.
One of our main protagonists is a young Gifted named Davian who has always lived in the shadow of the war. He and his friends Wirr and Asha attend a school for those like them, a place where they are sheltered and trained to use their magic. However, even then they are in no way safe. At the end of their time at school, Gifteds are required to pass a final test to prove they can control their powers, and those that fail must face the lonely fate of being ostracized and forgotten—their memories and abilities wiped away. Now Davian’s final trial is fast approaching, and he still has not been able to master drawing on Essence, the element that fuels magic. Worse, he is beginning to suspect there is something wrong with his own gift, which sounds suspiciously like something that the Augurs used to wield.
If anyone finds out about his secret, it could spell very bad news for Davian. But before his test could come to pass, he is visited in the dead of night by a mysterious newcomer, who gives our young hero a quest to undertake that could change his own fate and that of the world.
Reminiscent of Wheel of Time? Definitely. At the same time, I didn’t get the sense that Islington was out to shake up the genre when he wrote this book, and in fact parts of it feel almost like a loving homage to the classic themes in epic fantasy. It was therefore no surprise when I went to the author’s bio and saw Robert Jordan listed among his influences. In a way, there’s actually something very refreshing about Islington’s straightforward approach as well as his unpresuming commitment to simply writing an enjoyable, down-to-earth character driven story. While I read a lot of epic fantasy and it’s always nice to come across something completely new and unique, at the same time I also have no problems with getting a dash of the classic quest narrative, as long as I know that’s what I’m in for.
Many reviews have also made comparisons to Brandon Sanderson, and his name also came to my mind while reading, though probably not in the way you would expect. Islington’s writing, especially the stark play-by-play style of his action sequences, reminds me of early Sanderson, around his original Mistborn trilogy era. The prose is simple but polished, and the characters that range from the reluctant hero to the royal son in hiding are relatively archetypal, but still sincere in their motives and purposes. The page count probably could have been pared down, it’s true, particular in the middle sections where pacing dragged a little. To the book’s credit though, the story eventually evolves into a more nuanced, politically and magically layered narrative. The plot overall might be on the predictable side, but there will still be plenty of surprises along the way to keep things interesting for the reader.
Like I said, The Shadow of What Was Lost isn’t out to revolutionize epic fantasy, but nevertheless it is an engaging read and a series-opener that starts off on the right foot. The story and characters might come across a little clichéd at the beginning, but from what I’ve seen so far, both aspects have the potential to grow into something more. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing even better things in the sequel, which I’m now looking forward to with great excitement and anticipation.