The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington
It has been twenty years since the end of the war. The dictatorial Augurs – once thought of almost as gods – were overthrown and wiped out during the conflict, their much-feared powers mysteriously failing them. Those who had ruled under them, men and women with a lesser ability known as the Gift, avoided the Augurs’ fate only by submitting themselves to the rebellion’s Four Tenets. A representation of these laws is now written into the flesh of any who use the Gift, forcing those so marked into absolute obedience.
As a student of the Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war fought – and lost – before he was born. Despised by most beyond the school walls, he and those around him are all but prisoners as they attempt to learn control of the Gift. Worse, as Davian struggles with his lessons, he knows that there is further to fall if he cannot pass his final tests.
But when Davian discovers he has the ability to wield the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything. To the north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir. And to the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is…
When it comes to epic fantasy there are certain key components I am always looking for. A main protagonist has to have the potential for greatness. They have to be filled with uncertainty, at least initially, about their place in the world. An enigmatic character or two is also always a bonus, along with a multitude of supporting players who help to continually move the plot forward. Oh and I shouldn’t forget magic…and monsters… and time travel… and prophecies… and betrayals… and revenge and just about everything else you can think of. The good news, you’ll be pleased to hear, is that the first novel by James Islington has it all.
When we first met Davian, he has lived a sheltered life. He has been raised in a school for the mystically gifted, and is on the cusp of beginning his training in the magical arts. Fate intervenes and, along with his friends Winn and Asha, he is forced to undertake a journey that will leave them all changed forever.
Asha was hands down my favourite character. The situations she finds herself in, and the way her character develops, was wonderfully captured. There is an inner strength she exhibits that feels almost palpable. She is level headed, loyal and determined. Her evolution seems the most profound and I can’t wait to see where she ends up.
Like all the best epic fantasy the actions of characters have far reaching consequences. Things that seem inconsequential are often the exact opposite. The decisions that Davian makes, however small, don’t just affect him and his friends. All of the Gifted, and by extension society as a whole, are touched by the choices that this young man makes. During his travels, Davian meets a mysterious individual called Caedan, he also proves to be an important presence in this story.
There is little denying that The Shadow of What Was Lost is a huge undertaking. Not only is the scope of the novel gargantuan, but the book itself is a mighty tome. To give you some idea, the hardcover clocks in at an impressive seven hundred and four pages. The review copy I had weighed nearly a kilogram* All the best epic fantasy has to be EPIC in every respect I suppose. In an effort to avoid permanent wrist damage, I would suggest the ebook version if that is an option for you.
The real bonus about the book being so bloomin’ large however, is that this does give the reader plenty of opportunity to relish in the intricate world building that is going on. James Islington has created an entire society for us to discover and enjoy. His characters feel fully fleshed, well realised and familiar. The universe they inhabit is rich in detail, and that quality helps to forge a muscular, entertaining narrative.
On a personal note, I think I would have preferred just a bit more magical action and epic battles, but I can see from the way the story is shaping up that this will undoubtedly occur in the next couple of books. I really liked the magic system that the author created, and I want to see more of it. The Gifted are more than just magicians though. These magic users are political pawns. Watching how the various factions in the society attempt to manipulate them for their own gain is fascinating stuff. It seems entirely apt that magic and politics would be naturally intertwined if you lived in a world where magic existed. The problems this relationship creates is what is at the very heart of The Shadow of What Was Lost. You can just tell that enslaving magic users and forcing them to adhere to constricting rules is always going to end badly.
I’ve seen various comparisons between The Shadow of What Was Lost and the work of Robert Jordan. If I’m completely honest, I actually found this novel far more accessible than The Wheel of Time. I found it easier to pick up the narrative, even though there are multiple points of view. Just personal preference. I’m sure this startling admission probably means I have to return my membership to the Epic Fantasy Readers Society™, but I’ve said it now and I’m not going to take it back. The cat is out the bag.
The novel ends with a bit of a lull, a calm before the storm as it were. There are some suitably major revelations but then the story takes a breath. I’m sure there are shocks still to come, I’ll certainly be sticking around to find out. This debut novel has most definitely piqued my interest. I look forward to more.
The Shadow of What Was Lost is published by Orbit and is available from the 10th November. Book two of The Licanius Trilogy, An Echo of Things to Come, will follow.
*Yes of course I weighed it. Why do you ask?