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"After centuries of calm, the Nameless One is stirring. An army is gathering: giants, ogres and other creatures joining forces from across the Desolate Lands, united for the first time in history under one black banner. By the spring, or perhaps sooner, the Nameless One and his forces will be at the walls of the great city of Avendoom. Unless Shadow Harold, master thief, can find some way to stop them.
"Professional thief Shadow Harold on his quest for a magic Horn that will restore peace to the kingdom of Siala. Accompanied by an elfin princess, ten Wild Hearts - the most experienced and dangerous royal fighters - and the King's court jester (who may be more than he seems... or less), Harold must outwit angry demons, escape the clutches of a band of hired murderers, survive ten bloody skirmishes... and reach the burial grounds before dark. Can he escape a fate worse than death?"
Ten years ago, Alexey Pehov was an orthodontist. In 2001, he put aside his laughing gas and dentist's drill to pen Stealth in the Shadows, the first in a fantasy trilogy published to great acclaim the next year. A decade on, he's sold over a million copies of the nine bestselling novels he now has to his name.
So why haven't we heard of him? Well, all this happened in Russia (where fantasy fiction reads you). It's a pleasure, then, to see such a huge name finally debut to English-speaking territories, and while a slow start and some weighty worldbuilding means the newly retitled Shadow Prowler doesn't put its best foot forward, ultimately, volume one of The Chronicles of Siala represents the tentative first steps of a hugely entertaining new voice in genre literature which I for one will look forward to reading more of in the future - that is, as and when Night Watch translator Andrew Bromfield has worked his linguistic magic on the next novels in the trilogy.
Shadow Prowler begins with a sequence that will remind many readers of the early outings of Scott Lynch's gentleman thief Locke Lamora, in which Shadow Harold - the quirky anti-hero whose misadventures are the exclusive concern of this fiction - steals silently into the mansion of Avendoom's duke in order that he might five-finger the small, golden dog statuette he has been contracted to recover. But Harold's stealthy efforts are disturbed when the duke is murdered before his eyes by the Master, a mysterious antagonist who - though he remains unseen for the duration - lurks around the fringes of every evil act Harold encounters throughout Shadow Prowler.
After an exhilarating opening, however, Pehov's first novel mires itself in a dismaying mess of dense, derivative worldbuilding, with regular infodumps along the way for added value. There are gnomes, elves and orcs in the world of The Chronicles of Siala; goblins, dwarves, demons and dragons, too. Shadow Prowler seems determined in its first few chapters to introduce to its otherwise straightforward quest narrative nearly every fantasy cliché you can think to conjure up. That said, all the back-story serves some purpose, and you get the feeling the myriad races Pehov introduces will play a vastly larger part in the second and third parts of the series. Nevertheless, there are innumerable better ways to set the scene and establish a setting than by offering up scrolls of text.
Some readers may not last the course. Those who do will find their efforts rewarded when Harold is forced out of hiding by the King and set on a course his sensibilities insist he must see through: to travel to the ends of the earth in search of an artifact while will greatly diminish the power of the Nameless One, whose legions will otherwise soon trample Avendoom and the lands beyond.
Shadow Prowler offers little closure in terms of the quest Harold and his odd assortment of companions undertake, and so it is difficult to come to any sort of conclusion as to the overall merits of the tale. One can only imagine that many of the narrative traps Pehov sets will only be sprung in the later novels which will together complete The Chronicles of Siala. Thus, readers who demand resolution from their fiction would perhaps be better to hold off on this series until it sees completion, but those of us prepared to dip our literary toes into a pool of fantasy substantially deeper than meets the eye will find much to enjoy in Shadow Prower.
In particular, Harold is an excellent, if out-of-the-ordinary narrator. Opinionated, difficult and insulting, he takes some getting used to, but one Pehov finds the rhythms of Harold's increasingly idiosyncratic voice, it works, and wonderfully. His first-person narration, whether obfuscated or accentuated by Bromfield's translation, is packed full of disarmingly charming touches, such as Harold's insistence on referring to himself in the third-person when he's engaged in adventure and general derring-do. His frank and humourous asides make Shadow Prowler than much more personable an experience.
Alexey Pehov doesn't make a great first impression with Shadow Prowler, but as the story gradually gathers steam and Harold sets out on the daunting quest at the heart of The Chronicles of Siala, the pace picks pick up and the world begins to come alive. It remains to be seen whether or not this trilogy represents the best and brightest in epic fantasy, but from the halfway point on, Pehov seems to grow more confident with every page, characters quickly come into their own and the journey hastens towards a destination that is pungent with promise. In its own right, Shadow Prowler has a few problems, most notably its protracted opening, but notwithstanding that, it makes for a very fine debut, and if you can stand to look at Pehov's foundling fantasy as but the first part of a much larger endeavour, well... It ticks all the boxes.
by Alexey Pehov