I am back with a report about another Darkwater Legacy book. For those unfamiliar, The Darkwater Legacy is an epic fantasy series by Chris Wooding that currently comprises two gigantic volumes: The Ember Blade and The Shadow Casket. The Ember Blade came out all the way back in 2018 and followed the story of an unlikely group of heroes in a large traditional fantasy/Dungeons and Dragons party as they tried to find a mythical lost sword and use it to stoke the flames of rebellion in their small oppressed country. It was a fun time with a ton of callbacks to the classic fantasy I grew up loving with a number of modern improvements and a splash of Wooding’s penchant for horror (our review can be found here). Now our heroes find themselves post-quest and sword in hand but without a lot of clarity on how to go from possessing a huge symbol of change to affecting tangible change in the world.
In The Shadow Casket we get to see the nebulous shifting mess that is “doing the work” when affecting real-world change. Aren and co. are all young dreamers who see the world as black and white without all the grey that lies between and when they try to bend others to their cause they find that some people are unmovable and others simply snap with even the slightest of pressure. But, this isn’t a book about giving up, and with enough work, ingenuity, out-of-the-box thinking, and tenacity, the party begins to build an avalanche of change that starts to sweep up the world.
Compounded with the theme of doing the work, The Shadow Casket’s other major focus is the idea of mixed loyalties. Almost every character finds themselves torn between two opposing groups with a foot in either one and absolutely no room for compromise. Each character spends the book introspecting and deciding to finally make a choice between their identities because no one can have it all. Watching the characters look inward and grow towards their choices is incredible and was easily my favorite part of the book. The execution of this mixed loyalties theme was incredible and added a huge amount of tension as you never knew which direction a character would go and their decision directly affects the web of plots wrapping up the entire cast.
As always, Wooding can’t resist slipping a little bit of horror into his fantasy to great effect. The monstrous dread knights that litter this story are the things of knightmare and show the power of imagination used for evil. The horror elements also add a nice lodestone to give the morality of the book some direction. When looking at the plethora of causes and agendas it can be hard to decide which ones you support and reject, but the dread knights are a clear ‘no thanks’ that adds a nice touch of clarity.
In terms of negatives, there were a few outstanding issues that I wish Wooding would have addressed. The first is that this book has no recap from book one which makes me want to fight Wooding in a parking lot. I definitely missed a lot because I read the first 1000-page book 5 years ago and couldn’t quite remember everyone’s deal. A lot of it came back to me via context as I made my way through The Shadow Casket, but there were some characters that I got to the end of book two and still had no idea who they were. This caused me to just straight up miss some character moments where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe but instead, I spent the page going “Right, but who are you” which was unbelievably frustrating. If you just read The Ember Blade this will obviously not be an issue but there was absolutely no reason there couldn’t have been a synopsis or at least more callbacks to give me more context. Additionally,
As the book focuses on the nebulous and the indecisive there unsurprisingly are some parts of the book that drag. The balance of character regression, repeated mistakes, and growth is hard and I think Wooding did a great job. But, there are definitely some sections in this tome that feel like wading through concrete. This isn’t helped by a few characters going through unsatisfying arcs. It tends to be the women who have weaker character resolutions, which I didn’t love. Yet, as a whole, I still felt very positive about the general direction of all of the cast.
Much like book one, The Shadow Casket has that classic fantasy adventure feel with modern sensibilities. Its examination of effecting change and who to trust is captivating as a central theme and the horror elements make it stand out in the genre. If this book had given me a little more direction with a synopsis I probably would be exclaiming it from the rooftops but as I found myself lost in the mud for a disappointing amount of time I can only tell you I had a good time and I think you will enjoy the read.
Rating: The Shadow Casket – 8.0/10