Glen Cook's Shadowline (Night Shade) is a rich drama set against the backdrop of space, following three story lines that come to a violent clash, with political intrigue, family grudges and space combat wrapped up in to a solid story.
Looking over a number of bookshelves, I've found it interesting that there is a large split between the fantasy and science fiction stories, with authors often picking one genre or the other. There are very few authors that I can list, off the top of my head, that have worked in both, but Glen Cook certainly falls on this list and his prose thus brings about a very different feel to an epic set in space. There's a heavy fantasy element to this book, especially when one considers the names of characters and locations (Shadowline, Hawkblood, The Iron Fortress, Storm, and so on), which feels a little out of place at first, but these are largely superficial elements that don't really impact the overall story.
However, Cook's experience with fantasy writing does leave its mark with Shadowline. This book is really not something that should be thought of as science fiction, but falls firmly into space opera, which might help reconcile a known fantasy author moving out of the normal comfort zone of the fantasy genre and into the cosmos, bringing about an interesting look between the two genres and what actually separates them. Shadowline provides all of the familiar elements of any sort of science fiction story: there are space ships, strange planets, aliens, interstellar politics, and faster-than-light travel, but in a large way, the story doesn't really feel like it's set beyond our Earth: it is a story that could easily work in a fantasy setting, with its story complicated story of revenge. In a way, elements reminded me a bit of other space opera classics, namely Iain M. Banks Consider Phleblas and the other Culture novels, Larry Niven's Ringworld and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. There's a stretch in some of those, but like these, Cook sets up a universe where this story pans out, with its own rules and cultures.
In the beginning of the book, an attack on the world Prefactlas destroyed a Sangaree family and their business on the world, where they held a number of human slaves on planet. The Sangaree viewed humanity as animals, and with the destruction, a single survivor, Deeth, of the Norbon clan was left to exact his revenge upon the human invaders, a human mercenary family known as the Storms. As Deeth survived, he fell in love with a young human woman, and together, they made their escape. Alongside this story, the Storm family rises in the region, with a dispute between brothers causing great pain and suffering. A third storyline starts with a tractor driver, Frog, as he navigates his way down the Shadowline to uncover a rich deposit of mineral wealth that puts him into the crosshairs of Michael Dee, a half brother of the Storms, and the son of Deeth. The story weaves in and out of the issues between the family, crossing at points, all the while growing momentum to the end. The story is rich, interesting and worthy of praise for its fairly complicated nature, although at points, it would have been helpful for a list of characters at the beginning.
The world building for this story feels incomplete, sadly, and represents one of the only downsides for the book. Where much of the focus is on a rich character drama and how the story lines play out, I found myself wondering more about the planets, the societies and cultures that would inhabit them. Where Consider Phlebas really succeeded in rich world building and story lines, Shadowline is really only successful in its story lines and characters, and the result of that is that the book feels a bit off, incomplete, with its stories out in the air, with a little less support than they really needed from their surroundings. Speculative fiction is a great way to show wonderful, vast and epic locations, cultures and creations - I think that it's one of the strengths of the genre, but Shadowline left me wanting a lot more than I should have.
Despite that, it's a terrific, solid read, a step up above other examples in the genre, and its focus on the story and characters is admirable. Shadowline is a rich, engaging read.
You can pick up a copy of Shadowline from Night Shade Books, who recently re-issued it.
In a nutshell:
PROS: Shadowline pulls together three distinct story lines, weaving them together over the course of the story, in an interesting universe of interstellar politics.
CONS: The world building here isn't up to the same level as other Space Opera novels, leaving a bit to be desired.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a very good read, with an excellent story and series of characters.
This article was originally published on SF Signal, and is © 2010 SF Signal