A Threat of Shadows by JA Andrews

Rating 7.8/10
A fun fantasy with some well-placed twists

A Threat of Shadows by J. A. Andrews, first published in 2016, is a work of epic fantasy and the first book in The Keeper Chronicles. I read this book as part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off, a competition which pits self-published fantasy books against each other to be crowned champion. I found much to like within its pages as it is an admirable and mostly engaging writing effort that I believe would be enjoyed a lot by fans of J. R. R. Tolkien and David Eddings.

Do some choices change us too much for us to ever change back? There was a time when Alaric was a Keeper, one of the men entrusted with counseling the queen, protecting the people’s histories and ancient stories, and working magic in defense of the land. But in a desperate attempt to save his dying wife, he has sacrificed it all - abandoning his duties, betraying his deepest beliefs and falling ever deeper into darkness. So far, he has done nothing but fail, and his wife’s time is growing short. Now, haunted by his past, Alaric has found one last chance at a cure, hidden in a magical Wellstone buried a century ago. With the help of a handful of quirky companions, the stone - and the cure - are finally within his grasp. But he’s not the only one searching for the Wellstone. His quest grows more perilous as he discovers that his companions are harboring dangerous secrets their own. It becomes almost impossible when he unearths rumors of a gathering shadow threatening the land - whispering of the return of a dark lord, thought to be defeated. To face this enemy, and have any chance of saving his wife, Alaric needs to be the Keeper he used to be, not the broken man he has become. Can he put the failures and pain of his past behind him to stand against the approaching threat? Or, in the face of all the growing shadows, will it be the darkness within himself that destroys everything?

A Threat of Shadows reinforced my belief regarding just how important the first chapter - indeed the very first paragraph - is when reading a new author. Here is the first paragraph and I’m pleased to say it really worked for me.

“The deeper Alaric rode into the woods, the more something felt… off. This forest had always fit like a well-worn cloak. But tonight, the way the forest wrapped around felt familiar, but not quite comfortable, as though it remembered wrapping around a slightly different shape.”

This opening left me feeling immediately comfortable, wrapped in a Gemmell / Eddings type cloak of expectation. This was a novel that was charming me from the get-go thanks to being atmospheric and setting the scene perfectly. It left me eager to read the next chapter and to learn more of the story and as a reader you can’t really ask for more. I found the plot to be reminiscent to that found in the opening Sparhawk novel (The Diamond Throne) by David Eddings which finds the Queen Elhannia encased in a diamond throne, which preserves her life while Sparhawk searches for a cure. In A Threat of Shadows we find Alaric’s wife in a very similar situation and a plot of this type helps add impetus to the narrative, making the reader aware that the quest is a battle against time. I found this prevented the plot from becoming bogged down and kept it moving at a good pace.

My reading experience of A Threat of Shadows was an interesting one. There was much I liked and also elements I did not like quite so much. First, the positives: The writing quality was high and Andrews manages to instil tension well into the story. The author makes an effort to create an involved, clever storyline that both surprises and entertains and while, in my opinion, this was not always achieved, the attempt was admirable and led to many good moments. I liked that when I thought the story was going to follow the linear path of many epic fantasy novels it managed to throw a curveball and head off in a totally unexpected direction. There was one part in the book that I enjoyed above all others, it was when Alaric returned to the palace and encountered an old friend, Ewan. Ewan’s wife had recently died and in a touching moment Alaric used his ill-gotten talents to turn a wilting flower by her grave into a beautiful stone flower that would last for eternity. It’s moments like this that I look for in a book, moments of poignancy and what it means to be human.

I found the characterisation to be good but no one really jumped off the page and lodged in my memory. I also found one too many fantasy tropes evident and was very surprised by the introduction of elves and dwarves. As soon as this happened the book felt very much like a Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), Brooks (Shannara) and Jordan (Wheel of Time) inspired work and while I enjoy this subgenre there is always an issue with lack of originality. The biggest gripe I had was that events which happened were a little too ‘convenient’ - everything fell into place too neatly/easily and as a result the tension that had been cleverly built up was often lost. The author does attempt to explain this by suggesting that all the characters are being controlled, or ‘influenced’, by a powerful mage, but this just didn’t work for me I’m afraid.

The overall reading experience was definitely a positive one and I think a lot of readers will get a lot of enjoyment out of reading this and other works by Andrews. A Threat of Shadows is a fun fantasy with some well-placed twists and the lead protagonist, Alaric, is a character worth following, the success of his quest one in which you will find yourself rooting for.

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