Greatshadow by James Maxey – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel of the Dragon Apocalypse series by James Maxey.
“It’s very rare to find a novel packed to the brim with heart-pumping action, laugh out loud humour, and a protagonist who wants cake. Greatshadow is a brilliant book.“ ~The Founding Fields
Its not often I come across a novel that makes me giddy with laughter in the middle of some tense scenes between characters, when everything depends on what one of these characters will say. Pharaun Mizzrym in the War of the Spider Queen novels comes close but doesn’t quite hit that mark. Same for Matt Forbeck’s cast in his Brave New World trilogy. James Maxey hits that right note perfectly in Greatshadow though, and it is highly entertaining when he does it. He handles both action and humour with an experienced, natural hand that makes you wonder just how good he is. This novel was my first experience of his work and in a nutshell, I really want more.
The novel starts off with a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie: Stagger and Infidel escaping a tribe of pygmies that have made a (somewhat) dormant volcano their home, poison darts are flying all around the two of them. It is a great beginning that sets the tone for the rest of the novel, as every crest in the pacing is marked by action scenes and every trough is marked with sadness and pain. Stagger dies of his injuries during the escape and it falls to Infidel to carry on his memory. But there’s a catch: Stagger survives as a ghost who haunts the knife, his knife, that killed him and which Infidel now carries as a token of him. From there on, Greatshadow is all about dragon hunts, knights in shining armour, religious fanatics, sorcerers, ogres, time-travelers, shape-shifters, ghosts, and dragons. I went in with some reservations but the novel put me at ease from the beginning itself and then continued to hold me until I turned the last page.
The characterisation is where I was ultimately sold on with Greatshadow. Infidel, Stagger, and the three Goons are wonderfully realised three-dimensional characters who make the narrative their own, as if they are grabbing a bull by its horns. The novel is all from Stagger’s point of view, often in first person, so we don’t get to spend much time directly exploring the other characters, but his unique position as a ghost allows him to see a lot that goes on regardless. Infidel, a woman with an uncertain and mysterious past, is the charm of the novel. She is tough, thinks for herself, doesn’t have to resort to leveraging her sexuality, and has great lines. Her motivations in joining the hunt to kill the primal dragon Greatshadow are described best in her own words when she tells one of her companions that all she wants is a palace full of servants and cake (paraphrased). She isn’t a stone-cold character however, because Maxey allows us to see her vulnerable side through Stagger, in the scenes where she mourns his death and wonders at the possibilities that could have been between the two of them were he still alive.
Stagger is defined very well by the nickname he goes by, for it is not a “just so” nickname. He is a man who was conflicted by his feelings for Infidel when he lived, and is still conflicted in death. He staggers along his feelings, exploring them haphazardly, but he gets there in the end. The knife that binds him to the mortal world is a great device for Maxey to show off his world-building and raises questions about the dominant religion in the world, as well as what happens to those who die: do they linger on like Stagger or do they willingly go off into the unknown of the spirit world. Stagger made for an excellent vehicle of that exploration. Through his alliance of convenience with Relic, a mysterious sorcerer who is the only one who can see him, Stagger gets to know himself, Infidel, and the rest of his companions.
Then there’s Menagerie, one of the Goons, and a shapeshifter. His character is utterly delightful because he does get the best dialogues in the book, and because his (often) ironic self-assessment really lifts the mood when the narrative is in a tense, dark place. For me, his best scene is when he first meets Lord Tower and his band of adventurers when Infidel and the Goons go to join them. I won’t spoil the scene but do keep an eye out for it when you read the novel. The laugh out loud humour is best encapsulated at the end of that scene. Menagerie is a sort of leader for the Goons and by the time I was done with the novel, my one overriding thought in respect to him was that we get to see a lot more of him in the sequel, Hush. The other Goons, No-Face and Reeker, are also great characters but we get little time with them. In spite of that, Maxey makes their scenes count, he makes them out as not just any regular thugs for hire but something more.
The rest of Maxey’s cast is impressive as well, particularly Greatshadow himself, the mercenary Ivory Blade and his dream-y companion, and Father Ver, another character whose name has both form and function in his role as a priest who can see the truths in everything and who can expose the lies of others. I enjoyed the religious banter between him and Zetetic, a Deceiver, a religious sect which holds to beliefs that are in direct opposition to those held by the dominant church. It added to the world-building in a natural way and it fit the narrative as well, for a lot of things therein are about the truths and the lies in everything, whether they concern the spirit world or the mortal world or any other world.
If for nothing else, then I’d say that you should read the novel for at least the wonderful cast. You will not be disappointed!
The novel’s pacing is perfect. It begins on action, it ends on action. There are the right scenes where the pacing slows down while Maxey gets into the depths of his characters’ motivations and where he uses Stagger as much more of an observer than he does elsewhere. The beats, the notes are all in the right places. The action scenes, whether it be pygmy hunts or pygmy slaughters, fighting against illusions conjured by gods, fighting against dragons formed entirely out of fire, or what have you, are all written to engage the reader. The variety is great and at no point does it look like Maxey is padding the book with action scenes, as I’ve seen some people complain. It is all……… natural, which is all I could have asked of him and the novel.
And that’s all I can really say about the novel. It has a great premise, great characters, great secondary world, great world-building, great pacing, great everything. This is pretty much a perfect book for me, because I loved everything about it, and hated nothing.
The ending sets up the sequel very well, the premise of it already hinted at over the course of the novel, and I’d have to say that I’m looking forward to it immensely.