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Posted August 2, 2013
All that really need be said about this novel is this: it's simply gorgeous. There is no coveted goal in novel writing it doesn't attain: an intriguing plot, well-drawn characters, atmospheric descriptions, pacing attuned to storytelling... Any one of these elements could be picked out and without exception the praise of its full implementation has to be sung for „In the Shadow of Death“. There is, however, no complete review without critique.
In consequence two aspects shall be highlighted and put to exalted scrutiny: descriptions and plot construction.
Descriptions tend to a certain density by the generous use of adjectives and adverbs. Such density accrues the charge of the atmosphere. Such density accrues the charge of the atmosphere and this is of particular benefit to the novel when the pace is set down a gear, when Terr, stranded with the desert nomads, initiates his training in the spiritual track of the Discipline. The desert landscape is vividly represented before the reader's eye and its influence on Terr becomes palpable. But a few times throughout the whole of the book I felt that descriptions were compressed to the point of information-overload, like in this sentence: „Fractal tendrils reached in jagged fingers from the southern polar cap to vanish in faded muddy patches of green and flashes of azure from the small shallow seas.“
As for the plot, it is a pure joy for anyone who cherishes a complex societal and political backdrop in sci-fi. The criss-crossing pathways of diplomatic manoeuvring are outspread in subtle conversations between characters playing daringly their double-handed game. As rarely happens in unison, the development of the plot results both complex and thrilling.
But I think it is arguable whether the plot has not become a little lost in its own complexity.
To summarise the basic tenet: Kapel Pen rules a planet to which a lucrative mining colony is attached. She has to respond to the overarching rule of the Deklans. The Karkans can be seen as a competitor state to the Deklans. As already the blurb reveals, Kapel Pen plans to „cede the Four Suns“ system, of which her own planet forms a part. That is, she wants to cede it to the Karkans. While the blurb makes this known to the reader from the start, it is supposed to be unknown to the principal players of the Serrll Combine, a sort of super-government including both the Deklans and the Karkans.
But really it is hard to understand why the final divulging of Kapel Pen's plan appears such a surprise to the officials of the Serrll Combine. They themselves spell it out from the beginning, only with a lesser reach than it finally assumes.
Enllss, one of these officials, envisages from early on the idea that the Karkans strive to increase their political pull in the Serrll Combine by way of “territorial acquisition”. He remarks that attention should concentrate on “Kapel Pen and the other three Controllers“ of the Four Suns System. He says, „I need to know what Kapel and the Karkans are plotting“.
However, when Kapel's plan becomes known in explicit form to Enllss, he exclaims that „[w]e've been pounding our brains worrying about market monopolies“ while Kapel's dealings with the Karkans really were aiming for territorial acquisition. But this is no news at all. As can be seen above, Enllss had already calculated the possibility.
Thus, I would be inclined to see an inconsistency here. But it is of pivotal importance to clarify that this doesn't undermine the quality of the plot construction. To the contrary, I'm ready to admit that my above critique is somewhat sophisticated. That I could have formulated it at all has only been possible because of the complexity and finery that the construction of the plot carries. Therefore, what might appear as a point against the novel really is a strong point in its favour. Ambiguity in details can only show up in a story development that is remarkable for its richly layered and craftily detailed outlay.
Beyond any sophistication: the book just makes for a marvellous sci-fi experience. What's the more, it is not for an isolated story that the author has expended so much creative wit in the representation of characters and socio-political background. They are further fleshed out in six consecutive novels that, judging by the quality of this one, must sum up to an enthralling saga about the rise and fall of gods and empires. At the same time a focus will be held on personality growth as Terr advances in the way of the Discipline. „In the Shadow of Death“ calls for a resounding recommendation.
[This is a shortened version of the full review, to be found on the reviewer's blog.]