Shadowborn by Alison Sinclair (Darkborn Trilogy: Book 3)

The third volume of any trilogy always has a lot to live up to, especially when that trilogy is a single ongoing story spread over three books, and even more especially when the very title of that volume promises the appearance of a menacing enemy which has been waiting in the wings since the beginning.

While in Minhorne Telmaine negotiates archducal politics even as the lightborn prince is murdered, Balthasar Hearne and Ishmael Di Studier arrive at the borderland manner of Stronhorne to find the region in turmoil, with refugees taking shelter from a bestial Shadowborn army. Even as duke Ferdenzel Miceni tries to ineffectively arrest Ishmael for murder, the baron must use both his limited magical gifts and experience fighting the Shadowborn to prepare for a siege. As Balthasar rolls up his sleeves ready to assist in treating the wounded; he is unaware that he is about to find out the identity of the father of the babies whose birth began this chain of events, a revelation which will have highly personal consequences for Balthasar himself and lead him to go where no Darkborn has ever gone.

Oddly enough, as the book opened I found myself rather conflicted. The Shadowborn and the siege of Stronhorne Manor were a slight disappointment. Alison Sinclair has a gift for character and complexity, and for depicting quick and unexpected shocks such as assassination attempts or sudden explosions. Unfortunately, those gifts did not translate too well to portraying either the inherent tension in a threatening siege, or the particularly twisted nature of the half human Shadowborn. Indeed in telling what was at first a fairly simple story of a bunch of people having to hunker down and cope under pressure Sinclair’s writing seemed strangely off, and the pace and language of the book felt far more casual than such a situation warranted.

However, Sinclair’s deft gift for characterization and nuance continues, particularly in showing Ishmael in an environment where he is respected and liked, and a bluff, borderlands no nonsense culture diametrically opposite to the genteel Darkborn high society we’d seen recently. Indeed, a high point to this section was meeting the two Stronhorne Baronets, Laurel and Lavender, two tough likable young ladies who managed to straddle that boundary, being highly competent women who buck the system they’re born into without losing their character or relationships or devolving into one dimensional anti stereotypes. Of course, Sinclair has shown time and again in this series that the protagonists are only protagonists by virtue of being the characters the author spends time with, and everyone from royalty to railway conductors are people with their own complex webs of emotions and allegiances.

Also, either Sinclair has a Tardis stashed away somewhere and took a quick trip to the future to read my reviews before writing Shadowborn, or she agreed with my critique that the second book had been a little too fast moving and overly abundant in sudden introductions. Not that Shadowborn is particularly slow (far from it), but plenty of times we take occasion to pause, reflect, or get an adequate space to explore a new character or element of setting, whether taking a little time for Floria to meet Tammorne’s wife, or seeing the relationship blossom between Fejelis and the straightforward railway worker Jovance. Indeed, it is odd, in other hands this might have read as just a simple infatuation, an unrealistic example of ‘love at first site’ or a bit of out of place titillation, however given just how grounded both people are (despite Fejelis being a prince), the relationship just plain worked. Oddly enough, I almost wish we’d seen this relationship go a bit further, since for a series which is so emotionally honest, a romance between sincerely pleasant characters, especially one set against the fairly grim tone of Fejelis exile and things generally going to hell would’ve been a nice bit of light, if not Lightborn relief.

Speaking of the Lightborn, while we still don’t get quite as full a view of their culture as I would’ve liked, Sinclair here does mention some quite interesting details, such as the fact that their clothing is made of light flimsy fabric to prevent their bodies being shadowed, and upholstery and even bedding is made of netting or gauzy material that allows light to pass through. Similarly, though we receive far less detail about it, the Lightborn’s distaste for physical disability seems just as repellent as Darkborn high society’s enforcement of passive femininity, especially since we get to experience it firsthand.

Again, Sinclair shows her gift for weaving plots together and turns of misfortune having devastating effects, particularly in the way she explains the Shadowborn’s previous actions. While I was a little surprised that the Shadowborn’s machinations weren’t larger in scale and that so few Shadowborn were actually involved, at the same time, the fact that they were able to destabilize relations between Lightborn and Darkborn; and between earthborn and mageborn, so successfully with only a few players was a testament to the intensive realism of the world, after all, just look at how much damage a lone terrorist can do to sow suspicion in our own culture, indeed some of Sinclair’s depictions of misinformation as a weapon felt a little pointed.

Unfortunately, with the Shadowborn themselves, Sinclair’s own strengths worked against her. Even though we don’t have a specific Shadowborn character to give a perspective, we get enough views from various characters to paint as complex a web of factional intrigue among the monsters as among everyone else, indeed in many ways a more complex one since it hints at some pretty dark matters, such as slavery, mental compulsion and the madness of mages, matters which were doubly fascinating since they let us understand the motivations of those Shadowborn who previously carried out atrocities and how characters we love might relate to them, particularly in the case of Balthasar’s sociopathic brother Lysander. Unfortunately, in depicting Shadowborn in such a nuanced way Sinclair opened yet another hornet’s nest of intrigue, but one which is sadly not explored. While I have seen some reviewers complain at the idea of actual villains in the series, for me this just underscored the fact that this was a world where a mage’s personal power could carry spite to an entire race, and where those caught in the middle would suffer dire consequences (another disturbing insight into our own world).

The major problem with Shadowborn however, both the people and the book as a whole, is its ending. Despite the book being nearly fourteen hours (two hours longer than Lightborn and four longer than Darkborn), Alison Sinclair puts her characters in interesting places, evolves the plot slowly, has emotional and political arcs flow together organically, then the book abruptly finishes!

One second we’re putting people in place and expecting major developments, the next there’s a sudden magical mental confrontation between characters at long distance and everything’s wrapping up.

This is also likely why I’ve seen several criticisms of the books’ villains, since almost the second we meet them, we’re suddenly in the throws of a force projection style battle. A shame since both villains were potentially as fascinating in their history and as any other character Sinclair introduces and one, the frighteningly powerful child mage Ymeya was so downright disturbing I was honestly sorry not to see more of her.

Among the 7 named cast members, several such as Telmaine and Fejelis remain chronically underused. Indeed, to say Telmaine was the driving force of the plot in the previous book, here she essentially takes the train, complains about the impropriety of Darkborn mages then is suddenly involved in a magic climax whilst literally sitting in a station waiting room.

Of course were this the middle volume of a series that wouldn’t be a problem, Telmaine after all has more development to be done and it would make sense to focus here on the rest of the cast, with this being the final volume however, I was left thinking that all her resolutions in the previous book had boiled down to wasted potential, particularly since the Telmaine we meet here is still very much the prim, courtesy obsessed society lady we met in Darkborn; even at one point complaining about the benevolent Darkborn mages “lower class attitudes.”

Though Fejelis tentative romance is pleasant, again here he regains his throne so easily, literally walking in and being offered it, I wonder exactly what the fuss was about, since essentially we are left with the story of a prince who gets rather stressed, goes on holiday, meets a nice girl and then just gets back and resumes business as usual.

The speedy resolution here also puts a lie to much of the political byplay, factionalism and misinformation in the series since why were we so worried about potential conflicts if everyone is ready to just pack up and go home. Indeed, to say how volatile the situation in Minhorne previously appeared, with mobs and armies gathering and apparently no resolution in sight, it almost feels as if the entire trilogy was a tempest in a teacup.

Balthasar’s plot did receive a little resolution, and I was pleased that the potential love quadrangle between Balthasar, Telmaine, Floria and Ishmael was dealt with in a surprisingly adult and straightforward way (it's always nice when characters talk to each other), however, to say that so much other plot surrounded Balthasar here, especially around the nature of the Shadowborn, his brother and the very birth that began events the potential seemed wasted in the extreme. Even the death of a beloved cast member is skated over rather briefly, since the magical battle is so amorphous and dealt with so quickly that we barely have time to care.

As well as knocking out villains prematurely, cutting off plots in their prime and providing stopping points for potentially interesting conflicts, the ending was also frustrating in terms of resolution. Several matters, from Ishmael’s arrest to the turmoil of the Shadowborn attacks are simply forgotten about, with one of the most guilty parties responsible for many atrocities literally wandering off and telling everyone he’ll drop in later for a beer. Perhaps the most serious loose end of all is that though we do find out some of the history behind the curse which divided Lightborn from Darkborn (albeit from a likely biased source), the curse itself is never addressed or removed, and though relations between Darkborn and Lightborn have moved on a little, there isn’t a clear indication of where things are going.

Even in terms of characters introduced in this volume, the ending felt abrupt. Lavender and Laurel would’ve been perfect foils for Telmaine, especially with their admiration of Ishmael and disregard of reputation or modesty, however after a rousing introduction they’re forgotten about, as is one conflicted character connected to Balthasar. Similarly, most of the Lightborn court introduced in the previous volume including Fejelis’ sister and scheming mother barely register at all apart from the point that they literally just hand the prince the throne back.

The book does feature an epilogue five years later, and though this does detail the fate of one character and a meeting with another down the line, despite one reviewer I saw who was absolutely convinced this meant said two characters ended up together, since matters ended so abruptly for most of the cast and even more since we don’t know what they’ve been doing for the last five years, there just isn’t the evidence to back up that idea, especially given the lack of emotional resolution to several characters’ stories.

In general, the book reminded me of a canceled tv series. One second matters are chugging along, interesting conflicts, well-paced action, hints at mysterious things to come and even introductions of major antagonists and new lore, then suddenly an executive says “sorry we’re pulling the plug, and everything needs wrapping up. I don’t know if Sinclair had an overly pushy editor, or some life circumstances that meant she wouldn’t be able to continue writing and needed to resolve matters quicker than expected, but no matter the reason, the abruptness and unfinished ending definitely was a letdown.

In many ways, Shadowborn feels more like a middle volume than a climax, and a pretty awesome middle volume at that. Time to explore its characters, hints at an interesting setting, great emotional reactions and even in many places an improved gift for atmosphere, then all at once boom it’s over! Indeed, in my rating I knocked a full mark and a half off for the ending alone, which should tell you just how good the rest of the book is.

On the one hand, this makes the book feel highly unsatisfying. On the other, tv series like Firefly, Angel and Babylon Five which were sadly truncated by the whims of the unenlightened are still regarded as classics for a reason.

Likely, how much you enjoy Shadowborn, and by extension the series as a whole will depend upon to what extent you can appreciate the book despite its ending, or be able to imagine resolutions to emotional, magical and political conflicts which Sinclair sadly doesn’t give us.

Still, what you mostly have is a pretty fantastic story which irons out the problems of previous volumes, and even if you do have to use your imagination to extrapolate where some characters end up, that just proves how much the world of the Darkborn and its characters stay with you after you leave them.

8/10 Volume 4, unborn

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