Book Review: Sunshield by Emily B. Martin
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 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Harper Voyager (May 26, 2020)
Length: 432 pages
Desolate canyons. A lawless wilderness. Bands of outlaws roaming the frontier and attacking traveling wagons. All this in the publisher’s description for Sunshield should have clued me in to what I was in for, but I was still pleasantly surprised when I started this novel to find a fantasy western. Lark is our protagonist, known to the world as the Sunshield Bandit because of her shining mirrored buckler and the reflected sunlight she uses as a weapon. Her targets are the slave caravans that move across the desert, fueling so much of the human misery and injustice in Alcoro. After killing the slavers and stealing their money, Lark also does her best to return the captives to their rightful homes, but the care of so many people requires a lot of resources—resources that she doesn’t have, and that the dusty plains can’t provide. Lark and her own crew are barely surviving as it is.
Meanwhile, far away in the Moquoian court, things couldn’t be any more different. A shining palace of luxury stands amidst a lush forested land, all built upon the backs of slavery and human trafficking. Veran is a young ambassador who has traveled to Moquoia on a mission of diplomacy to negotiate better labor practices on behalf of his people, but to his dismay finds little cooperation from the nobles, least of all the prince, who even seems visibly upset at his presence for some reason. Whether the monarchy likes it or not, however, great change is on the horizon. As the kingdom comes under attack by a nefarious plot to overthrow the crown, Veran is thrust into a precarious alliance with none other than the Sunshield Bandit herself, the two of them forced to work together to resolve a mysterious abduction.
Sunshield certainly wasn’t bad, but it did suffer from a few issues that made me look up the book and author to see if it was a debut (it is not). Namely it was the uneven pacing that made parts of the story a struggle, especially in the first half where the plot took such a long time to take off or even get interesting. The exhausting amount of exposition slows things down further still, such as the lengthy paragraphs of Lark waxing poetic about her many tattoos, describing and reminiscing over each and every one of them in great detail. While I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, moments such as these were ultimately distracting and unnecessary, given the priority in your intro should be quickly establishing a hook. But unfortunately, I’d say this novel didn’t even pick up in earnest until well into its later sections, when Lark and Veran’s story lines finally converged.
Speaking of which, I found the characters to be interesting and well-written, though perhaps not so unique when you strip away surface-level features. Personality-wise, Lark is your typical rebel female heroine, often too proud to do the most logical and sensible thing even when it would benefit a whole lot more people than herself. Considering how long she’d lived her life independently, having to take care of herself and others under constantly changing circumstances, it is also shocking how incapable she is of flexibility or controlling her own emotions. Then there’s Veran, who is genuinely likeable and sweet, though his naivete makes his chapters at court very difficult to read. Constantly second-guessing and repeatedly beating himself up for his stupid mistakes got old after a while, especially since he just kept stumbling into the same traps without learning a thing. And finally, there’s Tamsin, a third POV who’s perhaps the most frustrating of all because her role doesn’t become significant until close to the end of the book. This made her early sections somewhat tedious, knowing little about her situation at that point other than she is being held captive and treated very poorly. To be honest, I skimmed many of her chapters, and seeing as they were kept deliberately short and vague anyhow, I didn’t feel like I missed much.
Still, my love for fantasy westerns absolutely helped. The world-building was fantastic, and the novel’s setting alone made this venture worth it in my eyes, since I have such a soft spot for frontier wilderness landscapes and tales involving outlaws and rebels. Of course, I still wish I had enjoyed Sunshield a bit more, but certain character flaws coupled with the unbalanced pacing of the story held me back from embracing this one fully. The cliffhanger ending was also a point of aggravation because it drops a major revelation for the characters while doing little to resolve their emotions afterwards, resulting in a conclusion that feels interrupted rather than complete. While I’m still open to the possibility of reading the next book, I think I will need to know that certain issues will be ironed out.