A man wakes up, half-immersed in a stream that runs through a battlefield, with no recollection of his identity. Overhead, crows circle, waiting. He has a vague memory of arguing with his reflection in the water, but that must have been a dream. Poldarn, taking the name of an obscure - and possibly made-up - god whose priestess he encounters, quickly adapts to a life without a past. His vivid dreams hint at that past, from a bewildering number of viewpoints: which dreams are truly his memories? Against a backdrop of a crumbling empire, beset by Viking-like raiders, Poldarn tries to reconstruct his identity. There are those who recognise him, but none of them live long enough to tell him his name. All that he can be sure of is his superlative skill with the sword and his ability to survive.
With the help of the fake priestess, Copis, he becomes a divine impersonator, a high-risk courier, and a button merchant - each role leading to another teasing encounter with a nameless face from his past. Legends and folk tales seem to link his fate with the story of the god Poldarn: could he, in fact, be a god and not know it?
Meanwhile, the sword-monk Monach (‘just a word for ‘monk’ in the southern dialect’) has been instructed by his Order to find the man who is calling himself Poldarn. The Order’s purposes are unclear, even to Monach, but they’re privy to knowledge about the god Poldarn that might help the mortal version to make sense of everything that’s happening to him.
K J Parker’s first fantasy trilogy, beginning with Colours in the Steel, met with critical acclaim for its straightforward grittiness, dark humour and attention to technological detail. The setting of the Fencer trilogy was a world of minimal magic, with few of the supernatural or mystical elements that have come to typify post-Tolkien fantasies. Shadow is similarly prosaic, focussing on the mundane rather than the magical. Parker conveys an intimate understanding of the mechanics of day-to-day life in a mildly industrialised Renaissance world - button-making machines, sword-fighting technique, the decades-long war against the raiders - without losing the tension of the narrative or glorifying its nastier aspects.
There are other similarities to Parker’s earlier novels. The prophetic dreams: the mirroring of dream and reality, highlighted by identical phrasing: the sheer complexity of plot, which is hinted at rather than revealed. Parker also has a rare gift for characterisation, and the plot is driven by credibly flawed individuals, rather than high-minded archetypes. Poldarn’s quest for his identity takes some improbable turns, working towards a revelation that is genuinely surprising and keeps the reader guessing until the end.
Shadow proclaims itself as ‘Book One of the Scavenger Trilogy’. Does the world really need another weighty fantasy trilogy, at over £10 for the trade paperback editions? Yes, when it’s by a writer as fresh and innovative as K J Parker.