In a land riven with plague, in the infamous Walled City, two families vie for control – the Medicis with their genius inventor Leonardo; the Lorraines with Galileo, the most brilliant alchemist of his generation.
And when two star-crossed lovers, one from either house, threaten the status quo, a third, shadowy power – one that forever seems a step ahead of all of the familial warring – plots and schemes, and bides its time, ready for the moment to attack…
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
– William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
The cover copy for The Shadow Master called to mind Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet, quoted partially above, immediately and with the invocation of the names of the Medicis, the Lorraines, Leonardo and Galileo created certain expectations about the nature of the book. I expected an alternate history and a romance and while there was truth in advertising, at the same time my expectations were disappointed. There is far less of a Shakespearean influence in the story than I expected and the book wasn’t so much as alt-history as much as a story told with certain historical characters and events dropped in to invoke a certain sensibility.
This resulted in me having a tough time getting grounded within the story. It was clearly set in a Renaissance, Italianate city and the inside of the Walled City is clearly developed. Yet everything outside of the Walled City is covered in mist, it is the great Beyond and not much is revealed about it. This spare world-building is perhaps symbolic for the way most of the City’s inhabitants have been cloistered in the city and have never travelled beyond and as such truly do not know what the world outside looks like. Looking back it was quite cleverly constructed, but while I was reading, I just felt confused. This general ignorance of the world beyond the walls also felt forced given the time frame set up for the plague that has penned everyone inside the City’s walls. According to the text the plague is rumoured to last for eight years and has been running rampant across the land for six, so how did knowledge of the outside evaporate like this?
Setting aside my problems with the setting, I really enjoyed my time spent with The Shadow Master. The dynamic between the two families was interesting and I loved the rivalry – that wasn’t really one – between Leonardo and Galileo. There were also some fun nods to some of their real historic works and inventions. I especially loved the way Cormick incorporated The Vitruvian Man in the story. The idea that magic is as much artifice as it is alchemical was intriguing, especially considering that one doesn’t need to have any nebulous aptitude, but just have a rigorous mind. Additionally, here is magic that isn’t without cost. It’ll be interesting to see if this magic system will be transferred to the next book or if Cormick creates a different one.
My favourite character in the book was Lucia. The only daughter of the Duke of Lorraine, she’s beloved and sheltered and dying to break out. Over the years she’s formed a connection with one of the ward’s of the Medici family and she wants nothing more than to be able to pursue their relationship. However sheltered she is, Lucia isn’t a wilting flower. When she’s kidnapped and imprisoned she doesn’t weep and wail, she doesn’t let despair cripple her, she plans and takes her fate into her own hands. I loved Lucia’s self-reliance and quick thinking. Her romeo Lorenzo was interesting as well, though I found him less compelling than Lucia. He’s a bit more on an accidental hero type and does things he knows are wrong, all to satisfy his own desire to see Lucia. Yet despite all this he’s a very sympathetic character and I found myself rooting for him regardless of his unwise choices.
The Shadow Master ends on a huge twist, didn’t make for a cliff hanger ending exactly, but did leave the reader to contemplate a mystery and wondering about the true nature of the Shadow Master. While there were some hints at this turn of events during the book it felt a bit abrupt. Still the core story of The Shadow Master was resolved in a quite satisfying manner and as such the book stands on its own quite well. Despite my qualms I enjoyed The Shadow Master and I’m looking forward to The Floating City to discover more about the true nature of Lucia, Lorenzo and The Shadow Master.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.