Ari Marmell – The Conquerer’s Shadow

In books I am always looking for original plots, stories that use a new perspective on a many used concept, turning it into something different and refreshing. One of those books is The Conqueror’s Shadow (2010) by Ari Marmell, a fantasy novel which is mainly told from a warlord’s perspective where past actions influence future events. Marmell adds to it magic weapons, familiar but different creatures and powerful sorcery, which means that warfare and battles take place in a different way.

Just a different perspective and take on the typical fantasy story is not enough. Because of the change of perspective Marmell can tell a different kind of story, which can be categorized as a ‘What if’ device, which other authors, like Brandon Sanderson, have successfully implemented. In that sense Marmell succeeded as it felt like a ‘new’ fantasy story to me. He made good use of this by adding in plenty of plot twists, using the changed setup to the maximum effect.

Besides that I do have to add that the story told isn’t that large. Marmell compensates this by enriching with flashback scenes at the start of each chapter. These scenes provide some insight into past relationships and backgrounds of characters. In some cases the flashbacks are related, while others stand more on their own. Marmell does make sure they are used in the right chapter as much as possible.

Even with these very positive points I was not completely satisfied in the end. This falls down mainly onto three reasons. The first is the characterization. Marmell managed to do so decently on the main character and on one side-character, but on most other characters I did not really feel distinct personalities. They had some different behavior but the way they talked and acted was too much the same and interchangeable. This was also partially caused by the second reason. While actions could be bloody and dark, in general the characters behaved light-hearted and good-natured towards each other as if they were big buddies or equals. Considering past situations it just doesn’t feel right, as they were the cause of some nasty deeds which seem to have little effect during the story. Their dark sides seem to play no role. I have seen novels with combinations of dark or gritty fantasy with comedic attitudes, but here it isn’t done in the right way. This is a grim and bloody but light-hearted fantasy that is not gritty or dark. To me it didn’t work out that well.

The third reason for complaint is the world building. I will have to do a little bit of spoiling here to explain it. The central nation and the society that Marmell presents in his world are simply hard to imagine. It is old, rich and powerful with many cities, but it lacks serious armies and a central command while accordingly it has supposedly deflected earlier foreign attacks with ease while the current threat seems to walk around the nation for many months virtually unopposed while it does little itself and nobody is thinking about that. There are some explanations possible, but they are simply far-fetched to me. They are also necessary for the plot to work, but the difference between the movement of armies compared to that of one or a few are too big.

The size of the world also left me somewhat confused. On one side it seems fairly large, but sometimes it seems smaller and in other occasions rather huge. The age of the country would make it seem rather unopposed towards external threats considering the internal weak structure that hasn’t been disturbed much for a long time.

My feelings towards The Conqueror’s Shadow are mixed. I enjoyed the new perspective and the resulting original plot, while the nature of the prose was often light-hearted with dark tendencies which didn’t work out. The world-building also needed some serious attention, especially in relationship to the plot. However, it will not be easy to change it that easily. Thus, a not very mainstream-novel, although some elements remain, while not choosing for a darker or a lighter theme. In my view a darker theme and behavior would’ve worked far better, but as I like such themes better I do am biased.

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