Something dark is moving in distant nations, and ancient powers are readying themselves for a final confrontation. A Dark Queen has raised a standard in remote lands and is gathering armies of unmatched might.
Into this battleground of good and evil come a band of desperate men whose only hope for survival is to travel to face this ancient power and discover its true nature. Their quest is at best dangerous and at worst is suicidal.
And with these men travels the mysterious Miranda upon whom all must wager their lives. She appears to be an ally but knows much more than she is willing to tell. Does she have a hidden agenda of her own? And will she prove ally or even more deadly foe when the final confrontation is at hand?
Shadow of a Dark Queen is the first book in the Serpentwar Saga and takes place decades after the events described in the previous books of the Riftwar Cycle. It features an all new cast – and some returning heroes, but with the exception of two of them, they only have limited page time – and an all new conflict, even if it has its roots in the same foe as the previous one. Shadow of a Dark Queen introduces two of my favourite characters of the entire Riftwar Cycle and also features a third, so I was looking forward to reading it again. And this reread didn’t disappoint, even if I had iissues with the (lack of) representation of women in this book. It’s still an exciting story exploring new ground on the world of Midkemia and setting up for an epic conflict.
As I’ve mentioned before in reviews I’m a sucker for the Dirty Dozen trope, or to give it its TV Tropes name: Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. Ever since watching The Dirty Dozen as a teen and then, shortly after, reading Shadow of a Dark Queen for the first time, I’ve had a soft spot for this sort of story. However, it does mean that the broad strokes of the plot and characters are somewhat predictable and it’s the details that have to set it apart. And Feist manages to do that even though he sticks closely to the standard progression for the trope. Our band of desperate heroes is larger than usual and the way they are brought into the fold is very dramatic. I liked the different stages of training – not just the standard boot camp, but later on a ship during transport and on the fly as the mission starts – and the sneaky cloak and dagger nature of the band’s mission on Novindus.
The Ragtag Bunch of Misfits only works by grace of the characters that it is comprised of and Feist creates a wonderful set of them. Our main protagonists are Erik and Roo are two of my favourite ever Feist characters. Erik’s steady and lovable character combined with Roo’s quick wit and just-south-of-decent morals are just irresistible. Their fellow misfits are not beyond redemption, while their officers are beyond reproach. Their captain, Calis, is an old acquaintance and I loved him and his sergeant De Loungville, they are the perfect combination to on the one hand inspire and on the other frighten the men in line. And as a cherry on top of the pie, along the way they are joined by Nakor, who is hands down my favourite Feist character. Together these men make for a compelling band and when, inevitable, some a lot of them die during the mission, it is a sad affair and not just a deserved end. Not all of them die a heroic death either; Feist shows that in war death can be meaningless, accidental, and unexpected despite being in a combat situation. I also felt sadness at the passing of Prince Arutha, since he’s so much at the core of the first Midkemia books. I was a bit confused at Nicholas becoming Prince of Krondor instead of Erland. It felt as if there was a distinct lack of explanation for the choice, especially as even several of the characters speculate about the why of it and I can’t remember whether we get one later on.
My one gripe with Shadow of a Dark Queen is its disappointing representation of women. There’s Gamina, who’s only identified as Duke James’ wife, not even named. Rosalyn and Embrisa only seem to be there as victims to spur Erik to action, while Erik’s mum is just as much a victim, although in a somewhat different way than Rosalyn and Embrisa. The elven queen, Aglaranna, makes an appearance as the beneficent ruler in a cameo. We hear about and see from afar the awful, bitter daughter of the Duke of Ran who had to marry Erik’s father. And the Oracle of Aal is female, but incidental to the story. And of course, the Dark Queen, whose identity I won’t spoil, but again she’s a distant character. The rest are just nameless, or as good as nameless, background filler. So our only speaking parts are victims, shrews, whores, or aloof figures of power. The only really large, rounded-out female role is that of Miranda and while her role is pivotal, her page time is limited. Hopefully, in the next book, which will have a more urban setting there will be more room for well-developed female points-of-view and roles.
Still, despite that big disappointment, I loved Shadow of a Dark Queen, if only for the presence of Erik, Roo and Nakor. Also, the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits trope will get me every time. Feist succeeds very well at painting the camaraderie between the men, having them come to care for each other and in their wake the reader does so as well. I really liked this jump forward in time and this new set of characters. It also allows for readers to jump into the Midkemia world without having read the previous books. I’m very much looking forward to the next book, Rise of a Merchant Prince, especially as Roo is the titular merchant prince.
This review is part of my Midkemia Reread, in which I read all the books Raymond E. Feist wrote, set in the world of Midkemia. For more on the why and how of this series of reviews, check out Midkemia Reread: An Introduction.