In the Shadow of Swords – Val Gunn

About this Book
When legendary killer Ciris Sarn ends a life in an empty city plaza with a single dagger thrust, little does he know that an insidious game has been triggered by the brutal slaying. Turning predator into prey, this part fantasy, part espionage novel races along as it follows the now hunted Sarn across the brilliant white sands and sparkling seas of Mir’aj, pursued by the widow of his latest victim who will stop at nothing for vengeance.
Before I begin, let me give you some history. In the Shadow of Swords was an ARC (my very first one, even) sent to me directly from the publisher. The book is slated to be on shelves in February 2011. The book itself is written by Val Gunn who has been published before. Errant Press (the publishing company) is an up-and-coming publishing company based in Florida. Due to the fact that I am always rooting for the up-and-comers in a field where getting noticed seems to be nearly impossible, I took a chance on this book and I’m glad I did (links for the author and publisher websites are below). 
I am having a hard time figuring out how to review this book because, while I had some problems with it, I think In the Shadow of Swords will be very appealing to a certain audience while it may completely miss the mark for others. Due to this, I will try to write this review in such a way that will highlight the reasons this book may appeal to some readers, and why it may put off others.
Gunn weaves together a dark tale of death and mystery over a vividly painted harsh desert landscape. It’s obvious from how well drawn the desert and overall culture was that Gunn based his world off of portions of our own Middle East. This is both a strength and a problem. By drawing so tightly on already known cultures, Gunn deftly builds a world that is relatable. He infuses it with enough unique fantasy aspects to make it interesting to the typical speculative reader. However, on the other side of the table, to well tempered speculative readers, the world may not seem nearly unique enough.
A good example of what I mean would be The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker. Many readers felt that basing his/her world off of obvious Roman culture was genius. This kept readers familiar enough with common concepts but interested by new fantasy aspects. Other readers felt that it just wasn’t speculative enough and the book lacked appeal because of that. Thus, writers usually take gambles when writing a book from such well-known cultures. Readers will either love that aspect because it is relatable or hate it because it’s borrowing too much from what we already know.
Gunn hits the ground running in this work. The book opens with a grisly murder, which is basically the birth of the rest of the events that transpire. He propels In the Shadow of Swords forward by focusing on events through numerous perspectives and by giving each character and interesting history. His characterization never falters. The events that take place in this book truly are interesting and have the capability to really pull the reader in. However, at points it almost seemed like Gunn was making too much happen at the same time. This did make the timeline of events somewhat hard to follow and I occasionally found myself confused with everything going on. For example, in one chapter a character is following someone through a city and the next he’s been on a boat for a while. While this may not seem like a big deal, these chapters take place in a page, to a page and a half, leaving me to flounder and wonder how exactly the character managed to get from point A to point B so quickly.
Ciris Sarn was the character who made the book float. He’s very well created and if he does fall a bit into the typical assassin stereotype, there is enough mystery there to make him unique enough to keep even the most jaded assassin reader interested. Marin Altair falls into a quick second, turning into a woman most people will sympathize with in some respect. The addition of Marin Altair to In the Shadow of Swords is another detail that will keep the tale of Ciris Sarn, an assassin in an assassin-flooded genre, distinctive. The core desire that drives her forward is something that succeeds in keeping the book surprisingly human. It’s also necessary a necessary addition, as Sarn, at times, looses his believability with his nearly superhuman talents.
My biggest gripe with In the Shadow of Swords is absolute personal preference and I feel ridiculous even bringing it up, but I think it is necessary to mention in an honest review. Gunn is a great writer. There were times in this book that I was shocked with his incredible descriptions. The writing itself promises great things to come and he should be noted for his prose. However, the biggest problem I had was a matter of style. The book is broken into sections, each section with short chapters (as I’ve previously discussed). Each chapter, almost to a one, is started with a four to five word dramatic sentence, which is its own paragraph. While I understand that the author did this to set a dark tone and grim mood (and it did succeed) it got very tiring and predictable to read a one sentence dramatic paragraph at the start of each chapter. I actually felt like this nearly constant way to start a chapter actually detracted from the unique quality of the overall tale being told.
All in all, this is a promising start to what I am assuming will be a several-book-long series. It’s a quick read, adding up to 357 pages total. Gunn is a promising author. His world is believable, his plot is quickly moving and his characters are interesting. This is a book that will appeal to those fantasy readers who like their settings relatable and a hint unique, which will probably be one thing that makes this book appealing to a wide audience. It will also attract fans of assassins and dark, complex plots. The magic and fantastic aspects are subtle and nicely done. While I predict that this book will be fairly divisive in the fans it finds, the people who do enjoy it will probably love it. If this sounds like something you’d like, look for it on shelves in February.
3/5 stars

8 Responses

  • Liviu

    Interesting review; personally I would stay away from this book based on it but having an arc I plan to read the book and hopefully i will like it better.

    My biggest problem with it so far – read several pages – is the font of the arc which for some reason is hard on my eyes.

  • Sarah

    The font seemed abnormally big to me. I didn't hate this book, but it had problems. I think it will appeal to a certain audience.

  • Liviu

    I am tempted to start it seriously later today after work; I was planning to start something else, but your review kind of made me curious.

    I looked again at the font and indeed it is large – but badly proportioned or something that makes it look very ungainly.

  • Sarah

    Liviu, I'll be interested in your opinions on it. I might be a little too harsh on this book. It's one of those where I can't decide if it really appealed to me or if it really put me off. Getting other perspectives might help me create a better balanced opinion, myself.

  • Liviu

    My goodreads minireview and a D for this one: will do a full FBC review expounding more but I feel strongly I wasted my time reading this one

    "Disappointing; the world is supposedly exotic but has no depth, the writing is ok in a thrillerish mode, fast enough, but very bland characters, very disjointed plot and all depending on supposedly long going (nine centuries or so) conspiracies that are based on everyone being dumb and on coincidences; the extract that I read and made me try this one gives a very misleading impression of what comes after.

    The ending redeems a bit the rest with some intriguing developments, but I have no intention of reading more in this series.

    Somewhat similar to Lamentation by K. Scholes, so if you liked that, you may like this one, but sadly not me…"

  • Sarah

    I just read your review and, quite honestly, I agree with what you said. I was trying to not be "too hard" on the book in this review but yeah… completely agree with you.

  • Val Gunn

    Sarah and Liviu,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my book!

    Certainly I understand your concern about the one-line paragraph openers and it drove my editor a bit mad. Yes, it is an author's tic. But for some reason I just love 'em. Raymond Feist did it for his Magician novels and growing up on them, it really appealed to me. I've also been influenced by mainstream thriller writers such as James Patterson and David Morrell who do this at times as well.

    Kind Regards,

    Val Gunn

  • Robert Hicks

    Nice review. I look forward to begin reading this book sometime this week. I have to finish Tad Williams' Otherland series first. I have read the excerpt that was on Amazon and have to say that I am intrigued with what I read. I do see the fast paced aspect of it right from the start.

    Your personal critique of the style was a nice touch and I am glad you included it.


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