Fantasy Noir

I like dark fantasy and I can not lie. You other readers out there might deny the lure of a good dark fantasy but for many the dark fantasy is closer to reality. I know, that seems like an oxymoron. The downside of my love of dark fantasy is that I end up reading some pretty terrible novels, just because they are ‘darker’. A recent experience with another trilogy left me somewhat unwilling to try to read Alexey Pehov’s Shadow Prowler, but I got over that. I was too interested to see what a dark fantasy told in first person would be like. It is not often any fantasy is told in first person, let alone one that is dark. Also, I was curious to see what the Russian idea of a dark fantasy was. Alexey Pehov, if it isn’t obvious, is Russian. He books have done very well and have been translated into english now. I have had pretty good experiences reading European fantasy, like Markus Heitz, for example. As far as Shadow Prowler is concerned, well, I wasn’t astounded, but I had fun.

I would describe this novel as fantasy noir, like some forties crime noir novel, the likes of Captain Picard would get into. Or, a Mickey Spillane novel. The story is told through Master Thief Harold, I know, pretty lame name for a master thief. I feel that is part of the charm though. Harold lives in the ever gloomy, twisted city, Avendoom. Yes, doom is in the name, and it is not surprising considering a whole quarter of the city is cursed with ghosts and closed off to the living. Avendoom is like a medieval D.C., with just as much corruption and secrets, but without shutdowns. Not to mention a slight infestation of demons that seem to be growing in number, thanks to the return of the Nameless One, who of course is a prophesied evil. There are also goat people who very aren’t bright, but very strong and are very displeased with Harold. Avendoom is dangerous for anyone, but for Harold it is even more so, but he calls it home.

What is Harold’s place in all this? Well, he seems to be a part of the prophecy as well. No surprise there, right? After being tricked into a job that is really a setup, Harold is forced by the King to accept a job that will have him stealing a magical artifact for the salvation of Avendoom, or punishment for said job. Of course, the location of the artifact is hard to get to and is old and spooky, and is filled with deadly things that just keep getting deadlier as one goes further in. So, of course, Harold takes the job and off the adventure gets going, well, sort of. Shadow Prowler is the first book of the trilogy, Chronicles of Siala, and therefore is not a stand alone novel. Pehov also paces he story somewhat awkwardly. So, Harold’s big adventure is no where near being concluded at the end of the novel. In truth, he barely seems to get anywhere. 

While the novel moves fairly fast it does so through disjointed starts and stops. Harold is informed early on what is happening, I am trying to not give anything away here, but spends some time performing other tasks other than leave the city to find this magical artifact. While all the actions taken are in preparation for this, it does seem a little bogged down. In the end I thought this was a good thing, because the charm of this book is Harold, and the cast of characters he gets to deal with. Harold has a master, who is something of a religious man and a drinker, because of course thievery, religion and alcohol have a special relationship. There is the group of hard men Harold gets put in with by the King’s orders to help him make it to the artifact. They are all blase about killing and all very efficient at it and all with a sense of humor concerning their trade. Not to mention a couple elf like people who include a cold woman that Harold seems to have a thing for. Of course, I cannot forget to mention Goblin, the comic relief. Goblin is a jester that wraps wit and wisdom up with silly pranks and general buffoonery. He insists on following Harold on his perilous journey and not being of much help. His favorite thing to do is annoy those around him, most of all Harold, but often some help is hiding within his actions.

As I said before, I was not impressed, but I had a lot of fun. Pehov, perhaps because of writing in first person, captures a similar feeling to other dark fantasy authors, while not copying them outright. This novel ‘felt’ like older R.A. Salvatore novels, or Glenn Cook’s The Black Company. Pehov is frequently compared to Michael Moorcock, who wrote the Elric books. I wouldn’t go that far, however, Moorcock was pretty surreal, and Pehov’s writing is very grounded in a dirty, dangerous world. While the pace of the novel is offbeat, it still moves well, with plenty of breaks in the tension, thanks to characters like Goblin. While not trying to give anything away, there is one very well written battle scene that a surrealist like Moorcock couldn’t have pulled off. That is why I think the comparison of Pehov to Cook is more reasonable. 

This novel is not for everyone. If you are not a fan of dark fantasy, pass this up. If you are a fan of dark fantasy, please read it, but remember not to get your expectations up to high. While is might have an over abundance of cliches, this is a pretty fun novel read. It is an easy read, something to burn through quickly without much thought and just enjoy. It is the equivalent of a popcorn crunching summer movie, not too much depth, but enough to entertain. It is a solid novel that is not that original in conception, but innovative in it’s delivery. I had enough fun that I will be reading the second novel, Shadow Chaser, and watching Mr. Pehov’s career develop.