February 23, 2010
Ari Marmell has written a number tie-in fiction novels for both Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The Gathering) and Vampire: The Masquerade, but The Conqueror’s Shadow is his first novel set in a secondary world of his own creation. It is a novel of war and revenge, populated with humans, goblins, ogres, witches and sorcerers wearing enchanted armor, adorned with demon-possessed talismans, wielding amorphous magical weaponry.
The revenge comes in many forms. Corvis Rebane, the Terror of the East is now a man of peace, married with two children. He hears of war brewing, but wants little to do with it. That is, until his daughter and son are kidnapped by members of the roving army. Once he finds out who is pulling the strings, namely Audriss a would-be conqueror in his own right, Rebane reluctantly gathers some of his old compatriots in the hopes of squelching the uprising.
Complicating matters; however, is just who Rebane’s wife is. In the last days of Corvis’s conquest, he took the hand of a young noblewoman as hostage and guarantee of his save journey. As Corvis’s army slowly dissipated, Corvis began falling for the young woman, Tyannon. The two were not many years apart and as Marmell begins the story, the two are indeed husband and wife. How this complicates matters is this: Tyannon’s brother Jaisson is a high-ranking general in the forces trying to conquer the world.
Part of what Marmell seems to be doing in The Conqueror’s Shadow with Rebaine is ask the following question: How possible is it to recapture old glories? Can a once-looming and dreadful figure still be the intimidating and powerful Terror of the East. Thematically and superficially, this isn’t too dissimilar to the manner in which Druss the Legend is called back to action in David Gemmell’s landmark novel Legend. The storyline also felt similar to the films Gladiator and Braveheart in that great warriors are called to duty in a somewhat reluctant manner.
Our first meetings of Corvis are painted as relaxed and sanguine; however, the air of dark legend surrounding his past is quite the contrast. This comes through other character’s descriptions of hi, which proves to be effective and a nice set up by Marmell for Rebane acting the dark lord when he dons the armor and begins his crusade against Audriss. Marmell also handles the struggle Corvis endures as he returns to his warring life. He dislikes the death he dispenses, but has a difficult time reconciling the immediacy of death and how a smaller number of deaths in the now can prevent a larger number of deaths later. This theme nicely parallels how an older softened evil with a newer evil who revels in his deeds; essentially the lesser of two evils. Fortunately Rebaine is an interesting enough character to carry a great majority weight of the novel on his shoulders.
Rebaine’s supporting cast is fairly well-drawn, as well. Davro the Ogre is an inversion of his former life, enjoying the peace of farming which would have him branded a traitor and marked for death by his people. His snarky grumpiness did wear a little thin after a while. Rebaine’s former witch companion, Seilloah is something of ‘the one that got away,’ or maybe Rebaine is the one who got away from her. Davro is something of Rebaine’s brutish representation and Seilloah is his magical representation. Rebaine’s dark counterpart is Khanda, the demon who inhabits Rebaine’s jewel of power. So with thes three supporting characters, we see different facets of Rebaine himself. The snarky internal dialogue between Khanda and Rebaine I found to be reminiscent of the internal shared dialogue between Loiosh and Vlad Taltos of Steven Brust’s superb Vlad Taltos novels or even Harry Dresden and Bob the Skull from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.
The magic is interestingly handled, in that demons inhabit gems and weapons that bend to the will of the wielder can become either sword or axe, depending upon in whose hands the weapon rests. On the other hand, the magic elements seem almost like plot coupons to be used and discarded. I also thought the antagonist, Audriss and to a greater extent, Jaisson (Tyannon’s younger brother) lacked a certain depth despite the intricate weaving of plotting power they both wove.
The Conqueror’s Shadow is an entertaining novel, with a nicely paced plot. Marmell touches on some interesting themes but falters a bit in balancing the characters on the sides of the conflict. Though not quite on par with the Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie crop of young writers, Marmell is still an engaging writer who has a good deal of promise based on this novel alone. He’s a writer whose work I look forward to reading as his career grows.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford