‘Shadow in the Empire’ of light is a profoundly strange book. It’s packed with adult themes yet the narrator – supposedly in her twenties – reads like a child, leading to a disjointed experience. The ideas are good, but none of them quite fit together comfortably. The end result is a book which isn’t a bad read, but which tries to be too many things at once and ends up being none of them.
Shine is a mundane in a powerful family of mages – and worse, her mother disappeared when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by the family outcasts. Now, trapped working with the peasants on her aunt’s estate by her aunt’s ill-health, she tries to make the most of what she has – but her careful equilibrium is disrupted by the arrival of the annual Fertility Festival, the Blessings, bringing with it a fugitive spy, several cousins with a vendetta, the mystery of a stolen letter, and enough family drama to last a lifetime. Her only ally a telepathic cat, Katti, Shine must navigate these complicated waters – and see if she can somehow set up the future she’s always dreamt of.
I was intrigued by many aspects of this novel. For one thing, a telepathic cat is never going to be a bad addition – but Katti’s presence never really added anything to the story, and she could have been removed entirely without any of the plot changing. Similarly, complicated family dynamics are often great fun to read about – but the dynamics here were a mess. Everyone in Shine’s family has a name related to light – Shine, Bright, Lucentia, Sparklea – and the names all start to blur together. Worse, there are just so many of them it doesn’t matter that they all get confused, because barely any of them are developed beyond a name anyway. Many of them are almost interchangeable. This is less complicated family dynamics and more twenty kids left unattended in the playground.
Shine herself is actually an interesting enough character. All her life, she thought she’d be a powerful mage, and she was distraught when she found out she was incapable of even the smallest spell. She has a great deal of insecurity about her lack of magic – and also about her mixed-race background, in a family where strong magical breeding is hugely important. Her desires to get away from her family and create a life for herself are very relatable, and her loyalty to her aunt and estranged cousin is commendable. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really do a great deal for the entire novel. Things happen to her – sometimes genuinely intriguing things – but they’re all orchestrated by those around her. For a protagonist, Shine does an awful lot of confused spectating It might be better if some of her supporting characters were removed, and Shine was given more of a chance to do things for herself.
I also have to mention the Blessings, a central part of the novel. The Blessings are a fertility festival – and in Shine’s world, this means everyone having sex with each other all the time. I don’t mind sex scenes in novels, but I wasn’t expecting them in this one, especially with a narrator who sounds so young. The sex scenes themselves also used some unfortunate euphemisms. Some people may like them, but I found them out of place and unnecessary – and I can’t understand why, in a supposedly sex-positive society, it’s so hard to call a clitoris a clitoris rather than some kind of floral euphemism.
The worldbuilding is the best part of this novel. The idea of a society ruled by mages, with the mundanes (non-mages) living in comparative poverty, is well-trodden territory, but the matriarchal nature of mage society is a fresh addition. Magic was clearly limited, with each major exertion leaving the character drained for some time, with powers requiring both innate ability and crystals – how these work is never explained, but it’s a solid basis for a magic system. There’s nothing particularly new about the setting, but it could easily be the backdrop for a great novel.
Overall, ‘Shadow in the Empire of Light’ suffers from having too many characters and an amalgamation of childish ideas (the light themed names, Shine’s general demeanour) with very adult ones. It would be a much stronger read if there was less going on.
Thanks to Solaris for providing me with a copy of this to review – this in no way affects the review’s contents
Published by Solaris
Paperback: 19th January 2021