The subtitle of my review for In the Shadow of Lightning, by Brian McClellan, is less a baseball reference and more of an allusion to the famous saying about lightning striking twice. Because this is the third time I have read this story. Reviewing this first book of McClellan’s new series is very tricky because I think a reader’s experience with the book will be greatly affected by whether or not you have read any of McClellan’s other six books. If Shadow would be your first McClellan experience, I think you are going to have a very good time. If you have read the books in the Powder Mage Universe (and I have read six of them), you are going to wonder why McClellan broke away from his very established world only to tell the same story a third time.
The plot of Shadow is confusing, nebulous, and exists more as a to-do list on a fridge than a clear-cut story, but this angle surprisingly works for it. The atmosphere of this book feels like a deconstructed heist novel. Our lead man is Demir Grappo, the aristocratic son of a powerful family in a magical world with a modern gangster feel. Everything is flapper, prohibition, and art deco with a magical tint in McClellan’s new fabulous setting. Demir, a long time ago, was a rising military genius until a campaign went horribly wrong and he had to witness his troops sack and raze a city. Demir fled to the outlands to escape the horrors of war and remained there a number of years. Now, in the present, his mother has died, leaving Demir to pick up the pieces of running their wealthy family’s interests. Demir arrives back in the capital having been away long enough that he has no idea what’s going on. He is thrust into a number of plots he can barely follow, and he must still push through the trauma from the events of his failed military campaign that still haunt him.
Demir’s first action in this mess of mystery is to start delegating. He has a number of leads to figure out, but only two hands. Thus he hires a series of rogues from all walks of his life past and present to get to the bottom of things. Each time Demir hires a new underling, their POV is added to the roster and we get a new avenue of exploration. This was a really cool way to tell a story, flesh out a cast, and immediately help me identify with the characters. Our crew includes Demir (the mastermind), a duplicitous guild enforcer, a world-famous boxer with a lot of charisma, a somber berserker captain of the army (which is a fun paradox), a brilliant engineer, and more. Yet while this was a super fun way to tell a story, it suffers from a lack of clear unifying throughline. All the individual stories are fun, but I was left with little understanding of the big picture. This clearly is partly to hold some twists up the sleeve, but the effect is that the book has less urgency than I would have liked.
Here is where this review must undergo a strange schism. First I will be talking about my impressions of the book, as I imagine a new reader of McClellan might experience it. Then I will be talking about my own personal experience.
My positives: The pacing of the book is fabulous. McClellan might be one of the best writers in the world when it comes down to pacing. All of his scenes flow into one another and each chapter ends with the perfect kind of mini cliffhanger to keep you going. The aforementioned lack of clear group direction hurt this a little, but McClellan is so good at infusing his story with energy that it overcomes this small speedbump. The characters are all dynamic and fun. The ‘crew’ has a nice well-rounded composition, even if some are a bit tropey, and Demir serves as a great anchor for the reader to learn about what is going on.
McClellan is also a top-tier world builder, with his city feeling like a real place that shifts and breathes. The magic of Shadow revolves around glass, and has a number of infusing magical properties that can affect those who hold magical crystals. There are also ‘glassmancers’ who can telekinetically move glass with their minds and are absolute horrors on the battlefield. They carry around little eggs that come apart into thousands of small shards so they can create killing fields of fast-moving debris around themselves. To top it all off, the action is exciting and gave me an adrenaline rush. It is hard to infuse the written word with a blockbuster action feel and detailed choreography, but McClellan manages it repeatedly to great success. Overall, there is so much good going for this book. It is a shame that I had read a lot of it before.
When I saw that McClellan was writing a new story after two trilogies set in the Powder Mage Universe, I was excited. The second trilogy (Gods of Blood and Powder), had been his strongest work yet, but I felt that in some ways it felt like a redo of his first trilogy just with many things he learned as an author newly applied. The two trilogies had similar story structures, the same themes, and many characters in almost identical roles—just with circumstances shuffled. It was fun, but I wanted something fresh with Shadow. So I was disappointed to find myself looking at so many similar plot elements rearing their head for the third time.
The prodigal son returns but is changed by his time away, mysterious theological happenings, a spy with split allegiances, an adopted brother with a ton of muscle, a huge warrior with a hidden past and something lurking inside. If each of these individually made a reappearance I would be fine, but with so many returning ideas from the previous trilogies I feel like I left a world only to find myself somehow back inside it. One of my fundamental clashes with this book I think derives from the fact that I get the sense that the point of Shadow is the worldbuilding. McClellan has a gift for world-building, and I think his stories are primarily a vehicle to show the reader new and exciting worlds with cool things to find. That is not why I like to read and thus I find myself frustrated by a lack of emphasis on themes and narrative focus. This doesn’t mean this is a flaw in the book; it’s just not a book for me. If Shadow is your first McClellan novel, I think you will have a great time. If you are someone who reads for themes and has already read McClellan’s previous work, I think you may share my frustrations.
In the Shadow of Lighting is a clever romp with a novel narrative structure and showcases McClellan’s signature talent for fast-paced action. Personally, I was hoping for a story a little further removed from his previous bodies of work, but his other books are great, so it isn’t like the blueprint was bad. I had a good time with this book, but I might hold off from diving back into the story until my cheese-like memory has forgotten my time with his other stories.
Rating: In the Shadow of Lightning – 8.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.