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Book Review: Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov

Genre: Epic/High Fantasy, Adventure
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 16, 2010
ISBN-10: 0765324032
ISBN-13: 978-0765324030
Author Website: Alexey Pehov

In Alexey Pehov’s English language debut Shadow Prowler, the first book in a trilogy, all the wonderful things about epic fantasy in the style of Robert Jordan and J. R. R. Tolkien are to be found.

Harold is a master thief in the great city of Avendoom, seat of a human kingdom, and a key player in world politics. Though successful and seemingly innocuous in identity, Harold has drawn the eye of someone powerful in government, who sees Harold as their best chance (after two previous failed attempts) to recover the magic Horn which can hold at bay Avendoom’s great nemesis, the evil magician known as The Nameless One.

The tale breaks up into two discernable, though not delineated parts. In the first, Harold is given his primary quest, but spends some time in Avendoom in furtherance of that goal. This first part of the novel reminds me a great deal of the old first-person shooter videogame Thief. As in that game, Harold must complete certain tasks in order progress his mission, all while using his thieving skills and his two-shot crossbow. Like any good RPG game-like novel, although there is a primary goal, there are many side quests, and Harold gets caught up in finding a statue of importance to several races as well as stopping by the local merchant to stock up on weaponry, and a short quest involving betrayal of an ally. During this period, the reader is introduced to the character of Harold, a no-nonsense professional who is supremely confident externally, but rife with doubts about his suitability on the inside, especially when he becomes the subject of a prophecy.

The second part of the novel follows a standard epic quest storyline. Harold finally leaves Avendoom as the companion of an elfess, a band of merry men called the Wild Hearts, and an often annoying goblin court jester. In this portion of the tale, Harold gets to know his companions, has a few run-ins with cronies of The Nameless One, and basically moves toward the first step in his goal of retrieving the Horn from Hrad Spein, the burial place of heroes and home of monsters.

Many of the traditional fantasy races make an appearance in this novel, though they do not entirely take the standard form. Elves and orcs, a related race in Tolkien’s mythology, are even more closely related in this epic. Unusually, the elves are not the first race of the world, ogres are. Goblins exist, but are a rare breed. Humans predominate, but they do not seem to have yet taken over the world, being only once race among several.

Pehov’s magic system is not new, but it allows for potentially more complexity than most epic fantasies. In his system, there are both shamanic and wizardly magic, neither of whose practitioners like each other very much. Shamanic magic is the more powerful of the two, but is limited for immediate use due to the need to complex ritual to make it occur. The magic of wizards, on the other hand, is immediate though often less powerful. Magic is also on the wane, and fewer and fewer magicians have the power that once existed.

Though pretty standard for an epic fantasy in content, I enjoyed Pehov’s Shadow Prowler for its first person perspective. The story is told entirely though Harold’s eyes, and there is a presumption of events occurring outside of his range of vision which adds a level of danger and excitement to the tale. Oddly, on occasion Harold refers to himself in the third person, and I’m not sure whether this is a quirk of Andrew Bloomfield’s translation or particular to the text. I think it is peculiar to the text, and when it happens (which is not often) it had the strange effect of the making the story even more real to me, as if referring to oneself in third person only made Harold all the more concrete. It’s hard to explain, but I assure you, even if it was a mistake, it is a useful one.

Because this story is a translation from Russian, there are some idioms that don’t translate really well into English, but overall, Bloomfield’s translation is excellent, and the poetic descriptions coupled with near instantaneous action hooked me in the first few chapters and were what kept me reading. Pehov also keeps the story moving with his matter-of-fact writing style, and by having several plotlines working at once so that I felt that I was as much enacting a role-playing videogame as reading a book.

Though readers who do not like the standard tropes and traditional plotlines will likely despise this novel, I found Pehov’s work to be wonderfully entertaining. The writing style takes a little getting used to – likely an effect of translation – but once you do, Harold becomes the type of capable anti-hero that so often appeals in this day and age.

Shadow Prowler is a novel that will appeal to fans of Stan Nicholls or Michael Moorcock. It is an epic quest story full of action sequences and little downtime for extended or protracted introspection. Highly entertaining, Shadow Prowler hits all the right marks, and epic fantasy fans are going to want to add this book to their collection.