Shadowborn by Moira Katson
|Formatt:||Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||April 8, 2013|
I was an ice child, having the ill luck to be born early, in the deepest storms of the winter, when the drifts of snow can bury whole caravans without a trace, and the winds will cut a man open with slivers of ice.
I’m a sucker for great first sentences, and Shadowborn by Moira Katson sold me on that one. The character who speaks it, Catwin, is a servant with a prophecy of questionable provenance attached to her and an independent streak reminiscent of a whole slew of teenage fantasy heroines.
Shadowborn, the first volume in the Light & Shadow trilogy, tells the story of Catwin’s movement from servant to Shadow—a sort of assassin, confidant, and advisor to a particular noble all rolled into one. Assigned to protect Miriel, the heir to the duke whose castle she serves in, Catwin studies subjects ranging from swordplay to the peerage. As the book progresses, the girls are brought to the royal court, where the duke hopes to shape Miriel into an irresistible match for the king. Miriel and Catwin, forced to work together despite a relationship fraught with mistrust and—at times—hate, have to outwit their guardians and enemies, with death and bondage lying on either side of the razor’s edge.
The setup isn’t all that unusual for a YA fantasy. The twist comes in watching Catwin deal with being forced to protect someone who hates her. She rarely wants to help Miriel, and it occurs to her more than once that she could let her die and go back to her old life if only her moral code would allow her to. The book goes deep, deep into the heads of these two girls as they circle each other, each too frightened and too proud to cling to the other when they need to. The rest of the story—a kingdom-in-trouble tale of politics and rebellion and war—whirls in deeper, slower motion around the girls, but it’s the dance between Miriel and Catwin that drives all the rest. That dance takes a long time to grab center stage, but once it does, the book becomes hard to put down.
Shadowborn felt a little light to me at times, but overall it takes familiar fairy tale elements—a castle in the mountains, the elevation of characters from low status to high, a cold and merciless duke, a clever and down-to-earth heroine, to name a few—and melds them with modern ideas to create something fun and interesting and novel, if not entirely new. There’s very little of the fantastic in the book, but Katson’s prose, fluid and polished to a high shine, holds the whole thing together very well, and there are moments that really twist the heartstrings.
The book does suffer from the fact that in places the girls’ problems could be faced much more easily if only they’d be honest with one another, but Katson does a pretty good job of explaining why they aren’t. Harder to swallow are the moments when the duke, who starts the book as a frighteningly superior mixture of enemy and benefactor, breaks down, and the girls outwit him not because they’re being particularly clever, but because he’s being naive or arrogant. I would have liked to see a little more detail and variation in the setting as well; it consists primarily of a castle and a palace that feel more like stages than pieces of a living world.
Shadowborn’s strengths far outweighed its weaknesses for me however, right up until the last few pages. The ending…well…it wasn’t much of an ending at all. It wraps up the big question of the book, which is whether Miriel and Catwin will ever come to trust one another. But by the time we get to the end, that question has been answered pretty conclusively already, and we’re more concerned with others. For me, a good cliffhanger ending resolves all of my immediate questions while tantalizing me with new ones that grow out of that resolution. This ending left so much unresolved that I felt a little gypped.
Forgive me if I take a moment to ruminate on that. I’m writing this series of reviews in part to take a hard look at differences between indie fantasy and traditionally published fantasy. One of those differences is that the confluence of art and commerce can be a little more naked in the indie environment. After the ending of Shadowborn, the author’s note provides a link to buy the sequel. The first chapter of the sequel is included as well.
Neither of those things is unusual. But when they’re paired with a marketing strategy (common in indie publishing) of giving away the first volume in a series and charging for the ones that follow, an ending like this can jump very quickly in the mind from disappointing to frustrating to part of a grand conspiracy to part you disingenuously from your time and money.
Not that the same thing doesn’t occur in traditionally published fantasy too, but then there are at least more people to spread the blame between. Here there’s no one to get mad at but the author. And if I were to run into this often enough to think that indie authors were doing it on purpose (rather than just dropping the ball on endings from time to time), it would be enough to drive me, as a reader, away from indie books for a long, long time.
Still, Shadowborn was a good read overall and (other than that ending) a promising start to a series. There are holes in my reading history, types of stories that I missed when I was younger and only experienced tangentially. Shadowborn, with its deep focus on the relationship between two teenage girls navigating the soul-effacing environment of a royal court, fills one of them. And while I wanted a little more of the fantastic and a little more of an epic feel, I flew through most of the book and recommend it wholeheartedly to readers interested in that particular fantasy tradition.
I give Shadowborn seven out of ten overall. Bonus points for drilling so deeply into the heads of the protagonists and for smooth, nearly flawless prose. Minus points for a supremely frustrating ending and a setting that didn’t distinguish itself.