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Book Review: Unbroken Chain by Jaleigh Johnson

Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Heroic Fantasy, Shared World
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: July 6, 2010
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0786956267
ISBN-13: 978-0786956265
Author Website: Jaleigh Johnson
Author Blog: Jaleigh Johnson
Read a Sample Chapter

Unbroken Chain by Jaleigh Johnson is the newest addition to the Forgotten Realms mythos. In it, Johnson brings us a story of a shadar-kai warrior, Ashok, who finds himself caught between worlds, surrounded by friends he cannot trust, in a city run as a theocracy by a harsh ruler. All of these elements center on Ashok, a man descended from the wizards of shadow, part of a race of people always in need of seeking new sensations to prevent sinking into tranquility. For tranquility means death for a man who can teleport but is also half shadow. To rest is to return to shadow, and so the race of shadar-kai are a race of warriors, lone wolves without a pack mentality, always needed to kill one another to climb to the top of the dogpile. Or so Ashok thinks until he is brought to the city of Ikemmu, ruled by shadar-kai in service to Tempus, the warrior god. But is Ashok the prophesied redemptor of the city? Or will he destroy it in flame?

Johnson’s bloody, violent tale of a warrior finding himself and the meaning of honor is a superb sword and sorcery tale. Ashok is an empathetic character. His inner conflicts are those of the readers’. He comes from a society where it is kill or be killed to the city of Ikemmu, where his race works together for the common good (at least the good of all shadar-kai, that is) and he finds himself unable to grasp the notion, making decisions that will affect his fate later. He makes friends with other warriors. Divided in their disparate faiths, Ashok is torn between these fighters and their deities. As the reader moves through the plot, they find that Ashok is just man trying to find his way in a cruel world. As a character, Ashok is both emotionally connectable and excitingly powerful. His attempts to tame a nightmare (a fiery carnivorous horse) reverberate with struggle. His use of a spiked chain as weapon of choice is unusual, and breaks away from the standard sword and shield or dual sword mode of most heroic fantasy characters. Ashok needs to return in other stories, as his character has depths to plumb which are only hinted at in Unbroken Chain.

The city of Ikemmu, too, should become a place of more stories. Unlike other stories of the Forgotten Realms which are usually set in Faerun proper, this novel is entirely set in the Shadowfell, a mirror plane which can be accessed through a portal in the Underdark. It is this plane which was home to the Netherese which played such and important role in The Return of the Archwizards series by Troy Denning. It is a plane of shadow, and its creatures are by nature more frightening and darker in character than those encountered elsewhere. Ikemmu is a portal city full of history between the Underdark and the Shadowfell. Like Menzoberrranzan or Waterdeep, it has the potential for more tales, and I would certainly like to see it return in future stories of the Realms. In particular, I’d like to know more about its history before the shadar-kai found it, and just what those winged images on its towers mean.

Johnson’s writing is also quite good. She has an easygoing, comfortable style that uses extended metaphor and foreshadowing to great effect. I did feel that the “fire” aspect of Ashok’s supposed prophecy was underdone. It was as if Johnson has intended the story to go one direction in its conclusion, and instead ended up going another. However, Johnson is very good at the long metaphor, making allusions to various bits of character and end events and them bringing them full circle at the end of the novel in a way that gives the battle and fight scenes emotional depth and coheres the book together.

For readers looking for a good sword and sorcery with character depth will find it in Unbroken Chain. It is also a good entrance point for readers unfamiliar with the Forgotten Realms who wish to begin reading tales in this massive shared world. Though set in the world of Faerun and its planes, it requires absolutely no prior knowledge of the world or having played the roleplaying game on which it is based. In fact, many players and readers of Dungeons and Dragons will be unfamiliar with the locale of this story, and so even long-time fans will be encountering something fresh and new. Unbroken Chain is great storytelling, full of vibrant detail, bloody battle, and invigorating characters. I highly recommend it.