Celine Kiernan – The Crowded Shadows

It is not ideal to start a trilogy with the second book. The most important question is how much the author will give away about events in the first book. The less, the better, as it will keep me guessing about what happened before and keep my interest to read the first book high. Luckily this was the case for The Crowded Shadows (2009), the second novel of the Moorehawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan.

The main element which makes this series defined as category is that it takes place in an alternate Europe. How it exactly differs is unclear, as the book had no map and familiar places are mixed with those without any references. Even the time period is vague. It seems to be set in the late medieval period while there are elements from earlier and later periods. The world also contains some fantasic elements in the shape of some supernatural components, while there are no references to other things. The characters’ behavior seem to point towards certain familiarity and acceptance. I cannot say much more about it.

The Crowded Shadows is very much a middle book. Strangely enough it is the story of a journey, a quest so to say, without the beginning and the end. While the events during the journey are entertaining and well told, it is a journey with limited impact on the overall plot. To be exact: Kiernan delves deep into the details and puts in everything she can to use every possible thing to make it a rich and insightful journey for the reader and the characters. She explores and develops her characters, adds conflicts and clashes (mostly in dialogues), while she also goes in the background and culture of a group of foreign travelers the main characters come into contact with. The downside to her great focus on characters is that the environment and world plays no role in the novel. The main characters avoid towns and villages so the world is an unknown place and the group is not bothered by outside influences except those that the author wants to include.

So in a way this is a strange novel. From beginning to end it was highly entertaining, captivating with good character development. Although I did not know the overall plot, there was quite little that happened that would have great effect on it. The journey could have been edited to half or maybe even a quarter of its length if all the elaborate details and extended dialogues had been cut short. One does not need so many words to have the same impact. The way of writing reminded me much of Janny Wurts, although the style is quite different, as Kiernan’s is much lighter and easier. Wurts also has a habit to go into great detail and depth while it has little effect on the actual plot. It is still entertaining to read as one certainly connects with the characters. The thing is that scenes are stretched out to the maximal possible length. Just when the reader (or just me) thinks that it is time to get on with it, she finally does. I didn’t have the exact same feeling with Kiernan, but it came close.

At times I am surprised how good my instinct is on the quality of a novel. I categorized this one as between decent and good and this is also how I think of it now. Kiernan is quite good in character development and creating interesting drama to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. While she does so, she loses focus on the actual plot and leaves it simmering on the background, pretty much unresolved and without much impact. I understand that a middle book of a trilogy can give trouble at providing a good beginning or end. It does not work if the middle book only connects the beginning and the end, not really moving the general plot forward as it only describes a (captivating) journey that mainly aims at exploring the main characters.

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