One of the benefits of building a world unfamiliar to the reader and characters that can live for hundreds of years, is the size of canvas, on which the author can construct his story. Certainly, in ‘Shadowless’, Randall McNally has developed a book exploiting those epic proportions, ranging across the ‘Northern Realms’, with a large cast of characters that perhaps befits such an ambitious undertaking. The fact that this is also a debut novel merely emphasises the congratulations due to the author, for such an absorbing read.
Amid echoes of Greek and Roman mythology, the Northern Realms is a world that cultivates curiosity and discomfort, wonder and horror in equal measure. The book also rather morphs into a novel, as the first half comprises a series of chapters, which read almost like short stories, or vignettes, introducing the respective ‘heroes’, with their inherited power and explaining how their differing local environments are formulated.
The malevolent ‘villains’ in the region are undoubtedly the cohort of powerful gods, who have survived a civil war among themselves, but in the process killed all of the goddesses. As a consequence, this exclusively macho group, using their ability to assume any form, satisfy their carnal desires among mortal women, the resulting offspring being born with supernatural traits, but without shadows. The ‘shadowless’ are thus born with innate advantage and yet are destined to be marked out and damned, neither mortal, nor god. The power bequeathed by their respective fathers may grow, if they can survive, but it can also be ‘harvested’ by the relevant god, in a cynical cull of their illegitimate children. Moreover, the Northern Realms are in the thrall of temples and mortal worshippers, who seek to enthusiastically appease the gods, by deploying a militia of ‘Shadow Watchers’, to identify and sacrifice the shadowless. Survival depends often on staying hidden from public view, in aristocratic isolation, forest, dungeon, or underground community. Only the mysterious Brother Amrodan, priest within a sole religious order committed to finding and helping the shadowless, appears to be on their side. Moreover, Amrodan is the lynchpin, mapping the whereabouts of the disparate individuals over centuries and devising the plan by which the gods might eventually be challenged. For me, he was a fleeting reminder of Nick Fury, meticulously assembling the ‘Avengers’, only Amrodan’s use of the dark arts involved a primeval pool and his kickass firepower came in the shape of a black dragon!
In a sense, the fact that these fascinating shadowless individuals seemed to struggle to gel as a group was hardly surprising. However, as prophesied, within the group is an especially powerful ‘shadowmancer’ who didn’t really fulfil his potential in this first outing. Coming up against a 25 feet tall monster with destruction on his mind may test the mettle of any leader, but it has left me with the impression that this book is the foundation of an ongoing story, the opening battle in a war, which I hope the author will continue. Interesting as they are, I did wonder at the sheer number of characters and the juggling required to keep them all in play, but if this does indeed culminate in further volumes, then returning to the canvas analogy, the author has acres of material to work with. Certainly the polish in some of those discrete early chapters bore the hallmarks of a talented wordsmith and I hope to return for Mr McNally’s next instalment soon. Incidentally, whilst the reader should rarely judge a book by its cover, the cover art, which did well in an online competition, on this occasion, is rather a good guide to the quality within.