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Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in the Shard Axe series, as author Marsheila Rockwell once again tackles the world of Eberron.
“A great adventure that is hard to put down, Skein of Shadows has to be one of the most endearing novels of the year.” ~The Founding Fields
Dungeons & Dragons is something I never got into as a kid. It was never as popular in India as Sega game consoles (or variants thereof), not even close. Might as well not have existed even! Moving to college didn’t help either, and I just didn’t have any interest in tabletop RPGs either. I preferred my RPGs in pixel form, Diablo and Knights of the Old Republic, to use a couple examples. And when I did dip into the larger D&D setting, it was through novels like the Dragonlance ones that I haven’t read in quite a while. These days I’m rectifying that oversight by digging deep into the associated novels, and Skein of Shadows happens to be one of the many that I’ve started that process with.
Skein of Shadows is about a Sentinel Marshal named Sabira of House Deneith and her adventures in bringing back her soon-to-be sister-in-law back safe and sound from the clutches of a mysterious enemy halfway across the world. In her quest, she is joined by a veritable mix of characters: a pair of ironforged dwarves (mechanical constructs), a dwarven engineer of sorts, a drow of the shadows, some hired swords and lots more.
The novel itself begins on quite a high and Marsheila totally pulls you in from the first few pages. Her prose is descriptive and evocative and it stays so throughout the novel, which made for a welcome change of pace to some of my more recent readings. With her writing, it is easy to visualise what the characters are doing and what the scene itself is, and what is happening. That is one of her strengths with this novel and she handles the narrative with far more deftness than many other fantasy authors I’ve read over the years. She is almost out there with the top leagues and if she continues to build on this, then she will be in those top leagues. They are just a hop away.
Her characters are also interesting, whether they are major or minor characters. I haven’t read many novels with female protagonists although going by recent experience, I’d have to say that Sabira falls somewhere between Nathan Long’s Jane Carver and Tim Akers’ Eva Forge on the scale of “awesome and badass leading ladies”. She is tough, smart and has a no-nonsense, daggers-at-dawn (or close to!) attitude that I really liked. Marsheila really goes to great lengths to provide challenges for her over the course of the novel and none of those challenges fail at their intended purpose, one of which is to put her in the apparently unique situation of leading a warband of hired swords. It’s also easy to see that the author hasn’t made the journey easy for her in any way. Sabira, while she ultimately wins through all the obstacles put her way, still suffers aplenty in the form of doubts, nightmares and a certain lack of confidence.
She really gets put through a meat-grinder here.
Her other characters are all, to one degree or another, likeable and highly entertaining, the most prominent example being the Dwarf Greddark. He is a far more complex character than her appears to be when we first see him and that added to his charm. For some reason, Dwarves never quite get such complex, layered characters and so it was nice to one for a change after a long time. His constant wit made for some of the most memorable scenes in the novel. And then there are some of the villains, particularly Thecla, who provided the most “serious humour” in the novel. He inadvertently lightened up all the scenes he was in. I don’t think that makes him a good villian.
She has assembled a really nice cast of characters and it was fun to see how they all interact with each other. Best of all is that she really has a gift for doing humour, and it shows.
One aspect of the novel that really appealed to me was Marsheila’s world-building. Given how evocative her prose is, it is really easy to visualise all the locales and the characters as the world of Eberron unfolds before your eyes. I actually found myself getting lost in the descriptions quite a bit because of some quite visually compelling scenes. And that also leads to my biggest problem with the novel. It is all too much. While it is not really info-dumps because as far as I’m concerned that term applies to a ham-fisted, dry approach to world-building, Marsheila still packs a lot of things together in several places. It becomes too distracting at times. I think the reveals of the world could have been paced much better and I’d certainly like her to consider that for her next Shard Axe novel.
The novel’s pacing was on the money too. While I thought that the “assembling the party” phase took quite a while and probabl could have been shortened quite a bit, it was still written well, so I can’t really complain about that. The novel begins on a high when we meet Tilde, Sabira’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, and then ends on a high too with a really climactic battle against the big bad of the novel. Or, as my friend Stefan Gore put it, “Skein of Shadows is The Empire Strikes Back of Eberron. It starts with a bang and ends with a nuclear explosion”.
The various intrigues, of which there are many, kept me hooked as well. They were revealed at all the important times and while you can suspect how certain plot-threads will ultimately play out, the fun of finding out how things really happen is never cheapened by the fact. However, once again, I’d like to reiterate that the author has perhaps packed one too many plot-twists in the novel. I’m not a 100% certain whether that is indeed the case but I found that in the end, some of them could easily have been skipped. While the novel itself isn’t a particularly big one, being about the average length or thereabouts, a shorter and sweeter narrative would have been just great.
What the novel has really succeeded in doing is to get me interested in the world of Eberron in particular and the Dungeons & Dragons meta-setting in general. I’d like to read a lot more of the D&D stuff now, barring the problem of finding the time to rad all of the novels and comics I want to this year! It is a herculean task each month to pick what to read.
Overall, I found Skein of Shadows to be a really great read. The way Marsheila writes, you feel connected to the characters and after a while its as if you’ve been friends with them for a long time. So yeah, consider this to be a recommended read as this is a fun and engaging novel that stays with you all through the end.