Whenever you go back and read an author’s earlier works — particularly when those works are out-of-print — you run a serious risk of catching them before they fully developed their virtues; and what might seem to be promising output from a young new writer will seem to be disappointingly flawed work from a writer you know can do better. So it was with appropriate amounts of trepidation and expectation-management that I picked up Dave Duncan’s Shadow .
My trepidation, it turns out, was entirely misplaced. This book is good. Not just “good, considering,” not even “good, but average for Duncan.” (I remind readers here that Dave Duncan is one of my favorite authors.) Shadow is well above average, even for Duncan.
Oh, there are signs that this is a relatively early work: The characterizations are a bit sketchier than in his later books, and the writing isn’t quite as polished; but both are entirely adequate to the task. And beside, any shortcomings are more than made up for by the story, which is unpredictable and goes off in exciting directions.
The book starts in conventional fantasy territory. Our protagonist is a young skyman, who rides giant eagles between rocky quasi-medieval holds. It feels very Pern-y, even more so when it becomes clear that this is a devolved colony on a foreign planet. But Duncan lacks McCaffrey’s soppy sentimentality: His eagles aren’t telepathic soul mates, they’re vicious animals that’ll snap your head off if you’re not careful.
That’s not Duncan’s only twist. In most quest fantasy, you have a pretty decent idea of where things are going to end up (good guys: triumphant; bad guys: fucked), and it’s just a matter of details. Not here. Every time I thought I knew how the story was going to go, Duncan would toss in a twist that would derail that potential plotline. The actual plot was both unexpected and deeply science fictional.
This is classic Duncan: Novel setting, interesting characters, turn-the-page writing, and great plotting. The biggest weakness to the book is the sloppy copy-editing and ugly cover that inevitably go along with the print-on-demand publishing. Highly recommended.