Crown of Shadows by Celia Friedman

Crown of Shadows book cover
Rating 6.4/10
Shadow of a crowning achievement.

With the explosive and tense conclusion to the previous book, I started Crown of Shadows with high hopes of a gripping finale to the trilogy. Friedman seemed to have largely surpassed her tendency to rather overwrought prose and with the revelation of both the unnamed, the dark powers who hold Tarrant's contract for immortality and the threatened plan of the Eizu demon Calesta to drown the world of Erna in sadism we seemed to be shaping up for a finale of epic proportions.

I can say at first the book didn't disappoint. The book begins by introducing Andrys Tarrant, Gerald Tarrant's descendant and showing how Gerald coldly and bloodily murdered the Andrys family after his brother tried to claim the Tarrant title.

It is a highly unusual move (even more so for a book written prior to the modern vampire obsession) to have one of the series two major protagonists be a monster who sustains himself on the fear of others, and for both pleasure and sustenance hunts people (most often young women) to death. Yet Tarrant's sardonic humour and the fact that he has played a major part in combating some even darker forces, along with Friedman's at times rather over-stylized depictions of Tarrant, meant that I never particularly got a sense of just how much of a monster he was, even despite the condemnation of the other main character, the priest Damien Vryce.

Yet from the prologue showing Tarrant exacting bloody murder on a whim, to showing him literally sucking the fear out of a woman and causing her to instantly drop dead, and his cold "well it was her choice" reaction when another woman commits suicide rather than continue to feed him with fear, it suddenly felt as though Friedman had taken her gloves off, and Tarrant's sinister monica of "The Hunter" was finally being earned.

With the book's setting being Jagonath, the city introduced in Black Sun Rising and the head quarters of Damien Vrice's church, it was obvious that this time Calesta wouldn't be working through some dark sorcerer which he had spent years subverting, but be whispering in the ear of various individuals, putting his chess pieces onto the board to exact a deadly check mate on Vryce and The Hunter. The pieces in this case were a fascinating set of characters: Andrys Tarrant who's family was murdered by Gerald and seems to have a legitimate desire for revenge, the Patriarch of Damien Vrice's church who is nudged into launching a crusade against the Hunter's Dark Forest with Andrys (and Andrys ability to get through the forest's defences), as his weapon, indeed the "crown of shadows" of the title is the ancestral Tarrant diadem which Andrys has made just for this purpose. Even the reintroduction of Narylca, the girl whom Gerald Tarrant promised not to harm in the first book and her love affair with Andrys promised an interesting development given Andrys quest for vengeance and the vow The Hunter had made to her, despite the fact in the first book she was mostly a fairly superfluous and rather irritating damsel.

Rumblings of the same sort of inter-religious violence in Jagonath that tore the eastern continent apart (especially with the Patriarch's planned war) after the first hour things seemed to be spiralling nicely into chaos.

The problem however, is that Friedman seemed to become extremely sidetracked into one major plot element, and one which was if anything the worst written and least effective. I can see what she was attempting with Andrys Tarrant. A playboy who is grieving for his dead family has lost himself in gambling, alcohol, drugs and whoring, and who is offered both the vengeance of Calesta's plan, and the love of Narylca as escapes.

The problem however is  that subtle characters and genuinely realistic relationships have never been Friedman's strong suit as a writer. Andrys grieving quickly descends from sympathetic hurt into what could be well described as whining, his self destruction and search for empty pleasure is only lightly touched upon, and I genuinely am unsure what exactly he gets out of his relationship with Narylca at all. At first I thought Friedman was planning to make Andrys become the Hunter's successor and the next dark sorcerer, however that roll is given to Gerald Tarrant's own Igor like butler, Amaryl.

Narylca also was extremely disappointing. In Black Sun Rising she was depicted basically as a delicate and beautiful girl who tickled The Hunter's fancy. However she really doesn't do much else for the plot here. She is still depicted as a delicate and beautiful girl, who has a career as a jeweller making delicate beautiful things and she worships a pagan goddess of delicate beauty. When she blows her nose I'm fairly sure she does so delicately and beautifully upon delicate and beautiful tissues.

Her relationship seems to revolve around the fact that she loves Andrys basically because he looks delicate and beautiful, like her teen crush, The Hunter. Indeed, it slightly bothers me that had Narylca been male, her relationship to Andrys which could be crudely summed up as "because he's fit" would be anything but the "loving devotion of two souls", and yes, the fact that Celia Friedman once again started to plum the depths of melodrama for her descriptions of this relationship didn't help either.

Of course, Friedman has shown a talent for taking seemingly archetypal characters in unexpected directions, however with Narylca she very much failed to deliver. One scene whose irony likely escaped Friedman features Narylca searching for Andrys, and gaining entrance to the camp where he and the church soldiers are fighting the campaign against the forest by playing the week and feeble woman not able to look after herself. When Andrys proves not to be at the camp Narylca gets herself lost in the forest, dragged away by monsters and imprisoned screaming out for Andrys to come and save her in best kidnapped princess fashion.

In fairness Friedman does attempt to depict Narylca as having a little more motivation at one point during the book's conclusion, but it is very much too little, too late. Similarly, one scene in which Narylca finds the tassel from one of her scarves in Andrys tent and realizes he's keeping it as a constant reminder of her does approach spitting distance of being touching, although unfortunately that is literally the only moment I got a vague sense of some sort of real connection between these two people at all, despite Friedman's rather torrid descriptions of their feelings.

Had this weaker part of the plot been only dealt with briefly (as with Jenseni's from the second volume) it likely wouldn't matter as much, however for some reason Friedman kept stopping other potentially interesting plot developments just to go back to this superficial, rather joyless romance. For example, a trip Damien takes literally to Hell, and a very uniquely described and deeply disturbing Hell at that, to find the soul of Gerald Tarrant is suddenly interrupted for yet another scene of Andrys whinging about his family and gazing raptly at Narylca, while a scene of Damien and Tarrant returning to the writings of Senzai from the first book to try and find a way of killing a Eizu like Calesta gives way to yet more long winded Andrys self doubting. Even Calesta seems to fall off the map in the latter half of the book, and his supposedly grand plan for ruling Erna is never revealed. The Unnamed who made such a wonderfully effective entrance in the final scene of book 2, barely register at all, in fact they only appear once.

The sad thing however is that there are some genuinely wonderful twists and moments, for all that Friedman seemed not to really take the time to link things up correctly. The Patriarch of Damien's church, a character who I had mentally already filed in my "obstructive authority figure" draw, turns out to be far more complex and have a distinct journey to undergo. At the same time, the powers of Erna and the order of the Eizu receive a fascinating treatment, even as both Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant himself surprised me with how much their characters changed and grew. The problem however is that since she spends so much time on the draggy romance, the plots just do not link up. While Calesta is defeated in a logical and somewhat epic fashion, he literally appears just to be defeated after being mostly absent for a considerable while, and to say so much plot and so many character motivations are built around Gerald Tarrant, Tarrant himself and Damien Vrice are rather sidelined and barely interact with the rest of the cast at all, indeed when the Patriarch's host lead by Andrys finally reach Tarrant's forest castle, The Hunter himself is not at home.

On the plus side, Gerald Tarrant's plot and his interactions with Vryce and with the Eizu does seem to resolve itself rather well and very appropriately, and Friedman's style manages to portray an awesome confrontation with some very alien powers and reveal truths that change exactly how you think of various aspects of the world of Erna. Despite the uneven pacing getting there, the result is suitably epic and you finally understand why the series is called "the Coldfire trilogy".
The Patriarch's moving resolution and the final world changing events that alter Erna itself are definitely satisfying, for all I wish the subsequent epilogue had spent less time on Andrys and Narylca and a little more on Tarrant and Vryce.

The friend who first recommended me Celia Friedman did say she felt Crown of Shadows was the weakest entry in the series, and despite its good moments, I'm afraid I have to agree.

On the one hand there is certainly a great deal to like. The problem however, is that where previous books inequities began at the beginning or close to it and were generally  smoothed out over the course of the plot, the issues in Crown of Shadows, with character relationships and an overdone style much like those that have plagued this trilogy from the start, serve to bog down an awesome conclusion, rather than, as with previous volumes, slow down an unfolding narrative. This is a shame, particularly given how awesome some aspects of Crown of Shadows were, since I'm fairly sure if Celia Friedman had spent more time playing to her undoubted strengths as a writer rather than her weaknesses, our last visit to Erna would've been a far more memorable one.

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