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Book Review: Shadowrealm by Paul S. Kemp

Genre: Forgotten Realms, Sword and Sorcery
ISBN: 0786948639
ISBN-13: 9780786948635
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352pp
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Pub. Date: December 02, 2008
Series: The Twilight War Trilogy
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“[Abelar] thought of Eldren, of Enden, recalled his father’s words to him – the light is in you – and realized, with perfect clarity, that his father was right.” (p.250)

The light is in you. As a theme for Paul S. Kemp’s Shadowrealm, the final novel in the Twilight War trilogy of Forgotten Realms novels, it might seem rather odd. After all, the story surrounds Erevis Cale, the First Chosen of the thief god Mask. Cale is a shadowman, able to twist and bend shadows to fulfill his will. His magic is not of the light, but of the darkness. Along with the Second of Mask, Riven, they are fighting an evil half-god by the name of Kesson Rel bent on destroying all of Toril with the Shadowstorm – while at the same time attempting to stop the take over of all of Sembia by the Shadovar, an ancient race of Netherese dedicated to the worship of the goddess of the void, Shar. “Internal light” would seem to be an odd theme for such a story, except perhaps for the necessity of having light in order to make shadow.

But Kemp, in his deft way, makes a story based on dark powers and characters into a narrative about truth, purity, and sacrifice. About honor among men in the midst of an evil world and an evil situation. Cale, the most powerful of Mask’s servants, is conflicted about his role. He wants to do good and be good, but is so much a part of the Shadow that to leave it would leave him physically crippled. Abelar, former priest of Lathander, had to deny his god to save his son, and now he wanders aimlessly and without purpose. Even Riven the assassin has his own form of humanity in his love for his dogs and his willingness to give painful mercy.

The most stunning part of Shadowrealm is not these characters. Rather, it is the change we see in Rivalen Tanthul – the villain of the previous novels, at least until Kesson Rel came on the scene. His change is stunning and profound. Kemp never lets his human characters be truly good or truly evil but instead balances the yin and yang of their characters. For a sword and sorcery novel, Shadowrealm and its predecessors is deeply philosophical. Kemp questions the very nature of the relationship between man and his belief in gods. Does man exist at the gods’ whim, or is it the other way around? Kemp’s conclusion is surprising for a novel set in a world that has a panoply of gods, many of whom are exceptionally powerful, with direct and obvious control over the lives of their worshippers. It is daring writing to turn this on its head and move away from the power that mankind derives from the gods, and look at it from the other direction. As Abelar concludes,

“The men and women of his company did not stand in the light. The light was in them. Lathander was merely a reagent that allowed them to shine. They were the light, not their god.” (p.250)

Now, this novel is sword and sorcery, and could even be considered epic fantasy. There are several significant battles – with the final culminating battle taking up nearly fifty pages of space. So for those readers who dislike long battle sequences, you may feel this story drags in places. Yet the characters philosophical thoughts are interwoven into the clash of metal and shouts of war of the battles, and these ideas should not be missed.

As well, the beginning portion of he novel seems to wander aimlessly for a time, as Erevis Cale and his companions move back and forth across the face of Sembia, seemingly without purpose. What this wandering does is allow Kemp time to build and describe the inner conflicts of the many characters, but the lack of action in the story does make it drag initially. This is completely rectified by the superior storytelling in the final battle against Kesson Rel.

However, I read a copy of the very first galley. Therefore, one must take what I say with a grain of salt. The copy I read was dated July of 2008 for a December release, so the plotting problem I have mentioned may in fact have been rectified between July and December in subsequent revisions.

Be that as it may, no one can take away from Kemp his true achievement. He has managed to take a style of writing normally associated with great action and lots of special effects, and make it into a deep search of the soul. All the necessary elements of a good action tale are there, but Shadowrealm moves into deeper and more powerful territory. As a writer, Kemp is one of the best. His name should be mentioned alongside not only R. A. Salvatore, but also such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, and Tad Williams. Although Kemp’s style and content are completely different, he – like them – moves beyond the setting to the deeper themes that can be found in all good writing, and are very much a part of our everyday life. Though I would at least begin at the beginning of this trilogy with Shadowbred or else you will be lost. I recommend all works by Paul S. Kemp. His novels are a reminder that reading can be both entertainment and thought-provoking, all in the same breath.