Jon Sprunk has taken the readers of Shadow Saga on a wild ride. First, in Shadow's Son, there was the action-filled, pulse-pounding introduction of Caim the assassin, as he fought his way through the ancient city of Othir with a young woman named Josey in tow. In Shadow's Lure, the story morphed into an epic fantasy; Caim journeying north through war torn lands to undercover his past, while Empress Josephine (Josey) of the Nimean Empire fights to maintain her newly won crown. And in Shadow’s Master, the tale of these two star crossed lovers and their individual quests comes to a stunning conclusion.
As the finale begins, the war weary and emotional drained Caim is about to enter the far north (Arctic Circle-like setting), where the sun never shines, winter never ends, and the war-like clans bend their knees to the mysterious power of the Shadow realm. His confrontation with his Aunt Sybelle in the previous book has also opened his eyes to exactly who and what he is: the half-breed spawn of a human father and a Shadow mother, but the truth did not liberate him as he anticipated, because now he also knows his mother was not killed when he was a child, but has languished as a prisoner of her own father all these years. And so Caim squares his shoulders, sharpens his blades, and trudges ever onward, determined to confront the Shadow powers and rescue his mother, or die trying!
Fluttering along behind Caim is Kit the disembodied spirit who has watched over him since childhood. While their relationship was strictly platonic in Shadow’s Son, it rather quickly transformed into a steamy affair in book two, as Kit made known her desire to have a romantic relationship, demanding that Caim forget Josey and help her find a way to be together. But while she is absolutely sure of her feelings for him, the young assassin is not; his feelings for her and for Josey pulling him in opposite directions, and so Kit begins a desperately search for a way to be with her beloved in the flesh at last – no matter the cost!
Far to the south, Caim’s one time lover Empress Josephine has found her campaign into the northern marches of Nimean beset by immediate trouble. Brigands rape and pillage at will; her own nobles ignore these incursions in favor of waging personal crusades against rivals; and all her attempts to discover news of Caim continues to meet failure. With her former lover’s child growing in her womb and enemies circling around her, Josey attempts to set aside her fears and measure up to her illustrious ancestors, but even with old allies and new protectors aiding her, things look bleak, as an army of Shadow spawn begin their invasion of the Empire!
Make no mistake, Shadow’s Master is a classic quest novel. Caim’s quest is obviously one to rescue his mother and confront his mixed heritage. Josey’s begins as a mission to fight her way to the father of her unborn child, but soon turns into a personal mission to prove to herself that she is truly worthy of being Empress of the Nimean Empire. And Kit’s quest is simply to find a way to become real for Caim and make him love her as she loves him. Intermingled into all of this is Sprunk’s trademark sword and sorcery action with dazzling sword fighting and buckets of blood and gore; loads of back story about the Shadows: where they come from and why they are attempting to conquer the world; and a final conclusion to the trilogy, which might not tie up all the loose ends, but satisfactorily brings everything to a fitting ending.
There were a few elements of the story that didn’t measure up for me however, and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon them for prospective readers of the series.
First, Caim’s interaction with other characters is almost non-existent in this one. Yeah, he does have three traveling companions: Aemon, Dray and Malig, but there really isn’t any camaraderie between them, nor do Aemon, Dray, and Malig grow into anything more than standard “red shirts.” Obviously, Caim’s constant guardian angel Kit is still floating around, but she deserves her own paragraph.
Kit. Oh, Kit. Where do I begin? I could mention how increasingly annoying she has become. The fact that she is so obsessed about having her feelings reciprocated – no matter the costs – has grown into stalker-like behavior. And the way she disappears for extended periods of time, leaving Caim in dangerous situations while she is off looking for a way to make him love her, didn’t put her in a good light. Honestly, I just could have done with less Bella Swan-like “We can’t be apart. You can’t leave me. Ever!” nonsense.
Third, Caim’s powers continue to grow. They even morph into vampire-like monstrosities where he begins to lose strength unless the shadows feed off death. While in past books Sprunk did mention Caim’s shadows descending into feeding frenzies, this whole vampire thing was so unexpected, so jarring, and so head-scratching that it distracted from th story more than added to it.
Fourth, the resolution of Caim’s quest to save his mother falls flat. There is all this build up to his arrival at Erebus, his confrontation with his grandfather, his reunion with his mother, and the final revelation of what the Shadow denizens are really after, but when each one materializes, they fizzle rather than sizzle, in my opinion anyway.
Lastly, the way the Caim-Josey-Kit love triangle ends is rather disappointing. Not how they pair off necessarily, because I felt that was inevitable, but the way it is done. Just left a lot to be desired.
The Shadow Saga has been quite the adventure. From Assassin’s Creed-like beginning to epic fantasy ending, Jon Sprunk steadily flexes his storytelling skills, crafting an action packed trilogy that will remind sword and sorcery lovers why they first fell in love with the genre. At least, it did for me, and I’m really hoping to see Caim return sometime in the near future.