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The Brightest Shadow by Sarah Lin

The Brightest Shadow by Sarah Lin
4.5
Book Name: The Brightest Shadow
Author: Sarah Lin
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy / Xianxia
Release Date: March 6, 2020

“When Epic Fantasy Meets Cultivation”

Sarah Lin is best known for revolutionizing the English-original cultivation (or xianxia) subgenre with her late 2019 release, Street Cultivation. Instead of cultivators wearing flowing robes and belonging to martial sects who dueled in quaint towns and countrysides, it featured gritty back alley duels and mobile apps that measure energy. Her subsequent epic fantasy release, The Brightest Shadow, brings similar innovation to epic fantasy, while not losing sight of her cultivation roots.

Whereas eden Hudson’s Path of the Thunderbird: Darkening Skies is a cultivation novel with epic fantasy elements, The Brightest Shadow is an epic fantasy with cultivation elements. The magic system is reminiscent of the creativity in Will Wight’s Cradle—an energy, called Sein, fueling a wide variety of martial skills, healing, teleportation, and more.

In epic fantasy fashion, there are a myriad of peoples, cultures, and subcultures, all with unique foods and pastimes; and more importantly, have different interpretations and uses of Sein. Some cultures guard their secrets, while others are more open. In progression fantasy[1] manner, people grow in power as they learn how to manipulate their Sein better; and higher levels are exponentially more skilled than even one level below.

Beyond this imaginative “magic” system, Lin creates a vibrant cast, infusing each of the viewpoint characters with unique and compelling internal narratives. The main protagonist, Tani, belongs to a tribe reminiscent of our world’s Asian steppe peoples. She’s out on a Farwalk through the Chorhan Expanse, her tribes Coming of Age ritual. Enthusiastic and open minded, her goal is to learn more about the Deathspawn that threaten the peoples in the region. Her travels take her to Bundlin, a town occupied by the orc-like creatures, where she meets Slaton. Fair-skinned, he’s given up the sword and taken up the healing arts, all the while protecting a little girl from his homeland.

He’s employed in a clinic by the military governor, Colonin. He sends them out on various tasks where they meet a colorful cast of minor characters: Melal is a Gaston-like chauvinist who wants to prove himself; Laeri is an adorable, naïve healer who is reminiscent of an anime character; Celivia, a secretive warrior with a scarred past; and Verrin, a powerful bandit with the most endearing voice of them all.

In a Game of Thrones-like manner, it turns out there is more to these Deathspawn. Known in their own language as Mansthein, they’re not just stupid brutes at the beck and call of some Dark Lord; but rather, a very bureaucratic and organized. I found myself fascinated by their culture, relating it to modern day military machines. Like humans, they come in all kinds of personalities, from the noble Kolanin who wants peace, and his colleague Aryabaus, who wants nothing more than to wipe out any human in his way.

Fueling the conflict between human and mansthein is the Legend of the Hero. In a land of the hopeless, the downtrodden cling to this messianic-like figure as the one who will deliver them from the Deathspawn. The Hero appears several times through the story, though he is not always what we would expect.

Whether the author intended it or not, I found the Hero to be a metaphor for modern-day hopelessness and discontent within political discourse. Humans living under mansthein rule generally had opportunities and a decent standard of living; yet many still pined for the Hero to “save them”. I found the sentiment to be summed up the healer Laeri, who fervently believes in the Legend, but doesn’t want “good” mansthein to die, despite the Legend proclaiming that will be what happens.

The Legend of the Hero raised so many questions, and if I have one complaint about The Brightest Shadow, it’s despite the enormous size—in epic fantasy fashion, it could’ve easily been three books with separate arcs—we don’t learn enough about what the legend really is.

Despite this, the sheer creative scope of the cultures and martial magic system, as well as the vibrant character, makes this a solid 9 out of 10 stars for me.

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[1]“Progression Fantasy is a fantasy subgenre term for the purpose of describing a category of fiction that focuses on characters increasing in power and skill over time. These are stories where characters are often seen training to learn new techniques, finding ways to improve their existing skills, analyzing the skills of opponents, and/or gaining literal levels of power.” – r/ProgressionFantasy

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