Brian McClellan’s opening salvo in his latest series, In the Shadow of Lightning, didn’t immediately grab me. The opening scenes, which take place some nine years before the events in the bulk of the novel and setup Demir’s character arc, were not as effective as, say, the scenes of revolution that open Promise of Blood. The glass-based magic system is clever enough, I suppose, but at some point, you read about so many different magic systems—from McClellan or Brandon Sanderson or whoever—that there are diminishing returns. And it isn’t as distinctive as the powder mage sorcery from Promise of Blood, for example. But McClellan makes great hay out of it, and the story picks up steam as it goes.
This is the sort of fantasy that needs a shiny, inventive magic system of its own. Like I said above, the magic system here is glass-based. The main character, Demir, is a glassdancer (which mostly means using shards of glass to slice large numbers of people to ribbons). The rest of the glass magic revolves around what is known as godglass, forged, sorcerous glass that can have a number of properties. Forgeglass makes someone faster and stronger, for example, and witglass helps them think more quickly and clearly, cureglass heals wounds, etc. Most people suffer ill effects from overuse of godglass, so they keep their godglass in cork-lined pockets when not using them (usually by wearing them as an earring). People with immunity to the ill effects of heavy godglass use, like Idrian, can become super soldiers by loading up on godglass earrings, weapons, and armor. No reaction to godglass at all, on the other hand, is a very handy trait for a godglass forger like Thessa.
McClellan doesn’t just give us a magic system to show off how good he is at thinking up magic systems. He doesn’t even just give us one to facilitate some kickass set pieces (although we emphatically get those). He also weaves it deep into his worldbuilding. The politics of the Ossan Empire are reminiscent of the late Roman Republic, with powerful guild-families not only holding seats in the Assembly but also operating extensive patronage networks. The tech is early modern (at least), with firearms and factories. But the Ossan Empire and the economy of the world is built on godglass. Forgeglass isn’t just used by soldiers for an advantage in combat, it is used by laborers to give them extra strength.
It is a big deal, then, that the cindersand necessary to forge godglass is running out. Now, one of my main gripes with the book is here. McClellan makes the same mistake embedded in the idea of Peak Oil. His world will no more suddenly run out of cindersand than ours would suddenly run out of oil. Diminishing supplies would push up prices, which would incentivize cuts in use and expanded efforts to find more of the same or alternatives, thus slowing the reduction in supply. But, regardless, Peak Cindersand is a key plot point. Godglass cannot be recharged, so the demand and need for cindersand to forge fresh godglass is enormous.
Demir goes into self-imposed exile after the events at the very beginning of the book. He restarts his political (and later military) career after his mother is murdered and he becomes patriarch of his guild-family, the Grappo. He discovers his mother was working with a Master Kastoras in Grent on a near-mythical “phoenix challenge” that would allow godglass to be recharged. Complicating things is that Grent, a nearby but independent city-state, gets blamed for his mother’s murder and invaded. Master Kastora’s protégé Thessa becomes a major character. The other two major characters are Idrian, a Breacher with long ties to Demir and a very personal, vital interest in helping him, and Kizzie, a Vorcien guild-family enforcer and bastard family member who has even longer-standing ties to Demir and a reputation for integrity. Demir sets Kizzie to unraveling the conspiracy that killed his mother, tracking down the other five killers (the sixth being a known Grent agent).
Deserving of separate mention is Baby Montego, who isn’t quite a major character. I love Baby Montego. He is a former champion cudgelist, the national sport, and a true celebrity. It is hard for a man that size to avoid notice. But he isn’t just a mountain of a man in possession of truly tremendous strength. He isn’t even just a strong guy who is also very fast and skilled at physical combat. He is also a kind soul and immensely intelligent. As another childhood friend of Demir, he is one of his key allies. One of my favorite things about In the Shadow of Lightning is that Demir, Idrian, Thessa, Kizzie, and Baby Montego are all hugely capable. But they start to uncover a conspiracy far larger and far more dangerous than they could imagine.
McClellan writes great military fantasies, but don’t let the opening scenes fool you. In the Shadow of Lightning is not primarily a military fantasy. It has some of those elements, but the story is driven more by the political intrigue and the detective work uncovering the conspiracy. I was delighted to find just how much I enjoyed those latter elements. McClellan has done it again. I am all-in on his new series.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of In the Shadow of Lightning from the publisher.
Glad to know the start is slow. Most of McClellan’s books have been that way for me and it’s always a battle to get beyond that point.
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