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Book Review: Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road by Jaleigh Johnson

click to purchaseGenre: Shared World, Forgotten Realms, Sword and Sorcery
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date July 5, 2011
ISBN-10: 0786955333
ISBN-13: 978-0786955336
Author Website: Jaleigh Johnson

Two cultures, alike in dignity and power, find themselves bound together through a mystical connection in Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road by Jaleigh Johnson. A sequel to Unbroken Chain, the narrative follows the further adventures of Ashok, a shadar-kai (shadow-man) and former slave believed to be the chosen of the warrior-god Tempus.

Creatures of the shadow are going berserk on the Shadowfell, a mirror world to Faerûn, the primary continent on the world of the Forgotten Realms. Ashok soon discovers that the dreams of the madwoman Ilvani and the unusual actions of the beasts of shade are connected. But the only way to discover the true source of Ilvani’s nightmares is to travel to the nation of Rashemen and consult the witch-rulers of that insular nation. Setting forth with his companions, a semi-tame hellsteed that eats flesh and has a mane of fire, and a caravan of merchants, Ashok must survive the journey from the city of Ikemmu on the Shadowfell to Rashemen.

As the reader might expect, much of this novel is given over primarily to the journey. It is a quest fantasy, wherein the protagonist travels from point A to point B, learning a little bit about himself along the way, and fending off attacks from bandits, dire wolves, and trolls. That various monster attacks occur with frequency so the story stays lively enough to keep from dragging. But it has that second-book-of-a-trilogy feel to it. The character grows emotionally and intellectually, but only a little, and the story’s tone is that this is but one step towards a larger goal. This is strange, because except for the back-story, the tale is entirely self-contained (save for the subplot involving the bard Daruk, which leads me to believe that another story of Ashok waits in the wings).

Readers unfamiliar with the first novel Unbroken Chain will have difficulty understanding Ashok’s motivations and how he changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. However, the exciting battle sequences, where Ashok wields his metal chain with lethal force, may make it worth the read even if you are unfamiliar with the character’s history.

Ashok is a reluctant hero. He is of the shadar-kai, a race of people that must seek new experiences (usually pain, hence their proudly worn scars and battle lust) in order to stay alive. If they do not, they will fade into shadows, turning over their souls to the backdrop of the shadow world, never to join in an afterlife. This is why they become great warriors, of whom Ashok is one of the best. But he is more than a fighter. Ashok evidences nobility and heroism in his deeds, a classic hero of the sword and sorcery genre. He sacrifices himself for his friends, yet at the same time doubts himself. He does not wish to become a champion of Tempus, yet in everything he does (even his rejection of divine help) makes him only the more suitable to be Tempus’ chosen. If gods help those who help themselves and others, then Ashok is the perfect man for the job of god’s champion.

One thing that makes this story a little different from most is the lack of a true villain. Ilvani suffers from a mental plague that causes her to affect the life around her (something I think Johnson should have explored a little more deeply when it came to the effects on the people around Ilvani) but there is no identifiable character that is a villain. This is in keeping with the new philosophy of storytelling that Wizards of the Coast has adopted – where there is no obvious “good” or “evil”; merely characters making moral decisions that affect others. The end effect in Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road is to make it difficult to understand exactly what it is that motivates Ashok and his companions, other than duty and friendship. These are noble things to be sure, but the lack of a clearly defined villain (who does appear in the last few pages of the novel in a surprising and awesome twist, but is more sympathetic than evil) gives the story a semi-aimless feel, up until the end of Ashok and Ilvani’s journey where it then proceeds to be awesome.

I enjoyed reading Unbroken Chain: The Darker Road but felt that it was not as good as its prequel. The actions sequences were entertaining, and Johnson does a good job of keeping Ashok interesting. But the story drags in the middle when the characters are merely traveling from the Shadowfell to Rashemen, and the novel could have been 100 pages shorter and more tightly told. I certainly suggest that readers of the first Ashok book continue the story, and I still want to see if the promise of Ashok’s saving or destroying Ikemmu to come to fruition, but Johnson’s second tale of Ashok was merely a stopgap story along the way to a greater narrative.

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