City of Shards by Steve Rodgers

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Rating 7.5/10
Fans of worldbuilding will rejoice at this coming-of-age story filled with some clever twists

Note: This book is part of the SPFBO 4 competition, and its score has been graded on a different set of rules than the usual. This score might change over time as our team discusses which selections will move on to future rounds.

Steve Rodgers’ City of Shards, book one in the “Spellgiver” series, is a rewarding read. On the surface, the book is a coming-of-age tale that centers on a chosen slum-dwelling orphan trying to survive in a harsh city controlled by a creeping religious sect and a gang of petty thugs. Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll discover a rich land full of detailed history, a struggle between gods new and old, an exiled eldritch race trying to reclaim their homeland, and a vast empire of secrets, betrayals, and mysteries that date back to the Creation of the world itself.

Fans of worldbuilding will rejoice upon opening the book. Readers are immediately greeted with a four-page Chronos, detailing the history of this world dating back nearly 28,000 years. Dozens of important dates and events are listed, and as the story progressed, I realized that this entire history was important in unraveling some of the mysteries and motivations of its various rulers and races.  The book then treats us to two maps: one of the City of Aldive (aka the City of Shards, where most of the book takes place), and another map of the Empire of Tanbar at large. I found myself referencing these maps quite a bit; while Rodgers displays ample skill describing the characters’ settings and environments, I found these maps extremely helpful in connecting some of the various locales that are referenced. As stated above, the further you allow yourself to be immersed in this world, the more you will get out of it.

As the first chapter opens, we are graced with lyrics from a bard’s song that is pertinent to the chapter’s events. Every chapter in the book is preceded by some quote, lyric, or passage that greatly enhances the worldbuilding experience. Thus far, before the narrative has a chance to start, the reader has been taught lessons in history, geography, and culture. This careful attention to detail does not relent for the entirety of the story. It was a lot to absorb at first, but I admire Rodgers’ decision to spend the first few chapters developing the setting without pushing the plot forward too quickly. Rodgers writes with a sharp wit, crafting both humorous and scathing analogies while introducing several mysteries that piqued my interest early on. At times, Rodgers introduces the reader to in-depth histories before immediately subverting them, so it’s important to absorb this early information to gain a true understanding of world at large.

I must emphasize again that this is a very detailed world, and it is plain to see how much time the author spent developing its various eccentricities. It is a world where the location of the moon (the titular Spellgiver) determines the strength of spells that mages can access. While the moon is at its Apex stage, the spell strength is strongest, but its position also can prevent access to certain areas of the continent. There are multiple sets of gods, including an ancient and immortal race known as the Carvers that brought magic to the world. There is an evil Eldegod named Morphat that thrives on pain and human sacrifice that is somehow gaining in popularity across the human cities and beyond. Another god, Haraf of the of Demons, has been banished to a prison dimension and driven insane by its solitude. He seeks vengeance against the humans that imprisoned him. There’s a Lovecraftian race of indigenous, six-armed lizard-like beings that have been driven by war to live in a northern frozen tundra, led by a commander of uncommon intelligence who vies to reclaim their southern homeland back from the humans who drove them away. (Fans of Phil Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate series might draw a few parallels between Kemharak and Tharok.) And at the center of it all is our main character Larin, a troubled youth battling loneliness and depression, who occasionally explodes with a Tourette’s-like outburst that may end up being the key to humanity’s salvation… or downfall.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story that centers on Larin trying to survive his affliction in a thug-controlled ghetto of the City of Shards. There are some familiar beats in the story: Larin is a ‘chosen one’ hero who comes from nothing to play a key role in the fate of the world. Yet there are plenty of interesting twists that separate this story from others of its kind. What if the only two choices Larin has is to decide between humanity’s enslavement to cult of horror and repression, or to face an insane and powerful being who is hell-bent vengeance and destruction?

There are several other notable aspects to the book that I admired. Rodgers is skilled at crafting mysteries and revealing them at a generous pace, which felt gratifying and prevented the book from getting too dark. I also enjoyed how Rodgers not only built this diverse world, but attempts to explain its origins, histories, birthing of magic, creation of races, and vast environmental changes over the course of millennia – and it’s all tied into the central plot of the saga. Even though there is substantial information to absorb and review, none of it feels extraneous, and it all has its place in furthering the story and its repercussions across the world. It’s a lot to cover, but somehow it all works very well!

Side note: chapter 12 is one of the most interesting and unique chapters I’ve read this year. Not just because of the blood-clowns, but they certainly helped the cause. Yes, there are blood-clowns. If I had been undecided at whether I was enjoying this story or not, there was no longer any question after I finished this chapter.

Although City of Shards is the first SPFBO 4 book I decided to review, I have a strong sense that it will be in discussion for our team’s finalist entry. Although I have many more books I’ve committed to read and review before the end of this year, I decided to put all of those aside and immediately purchase and read the next book in the series. That is probably the best endorsement I can give City of Shards: it made throw away my reading schedule because I wanted to find out what happens next. And that is a rare feat indeed. Regardless of its fate in the contest, this is a book that should be shared and discussed, and I’m eager to continue exploring Rodgers’ catalog further.

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