If you’ve read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, it’s almost impossible to miss the clear influence the series has had on James Islington’s debut novel, The Shadow of What Was Lost. It’s a comparison that’s certainly complimentary, as Shadow evokes much of the same adventure, scope and coming-of-age entertainment as The Wheel of Time. It’s also an unfair comparison, as Jordan spent decades honing his craft before he began The Wheel of Time, and anyone expecting Islington to match Jordan’s confident writing style in his debut novel is setting him up to fail.

What makes Islington’s debut so exciting in this, the first book in the Licanius Trilogy, is his storytelling ability. While the general setup is familiar as your own handwriting – a young man discovers he has mysterious powers and must go on the run so he can learn how to master those powers and help his friends defeat the mysterious and terrifying army swarming down upon them – Islington executes the story well with likeable characters, strong pacing and a touch of humor. It’s clearly modeled after Jordan and Rothfuss and Sanderson, but it’s done well enough that it’s more a celebration of those previous authors and stories than a forgery, and Islington’s world-building adds some interesting touches that could allow the sequels to expand into uncharted territory. It’s a novel that earned its nomination as one of Reddit’s favorite debut fantasy novels of 2014.

The book begins twenty years after the end of a war that saw the godlike Augurs removed from power and wiped out when their powers mysteriously failed them. The Gifted who once served them only survived by submitting to the Four Tenets, which prevent them from using their magic to harm others – even in self-defense.

A student at a school for Gifted, Davian is on the verge of being removed from the school and made a Shadow due to his inability to wield the Essence and control his gift. But just as it seems he’s doomed to life as an outcast, separated even from his best friends Asha and Wirr, he discovers that the reason he can’t use the Essence is because he wields a far stronger and more dangerous power – that of the Augurs.

Davian is a likeable, intelligent protagonist, and his friends Wirr and Asha are equally compelling. Asha is an especial delight, as Islington avoids the struggles with female protagonists that plagued much of The Wheel of Time. Instead, Asha is one of the book’s strengths as she uses her courage and wits to bridge the worlds of the Shadows and the Administrators who oversee the Gifted. It’s not clear how old Davian, Wirr and Asha are (I’m guessing 15-19?) but Islington does a good job of making them reasonably competent for their age. They make mistakes, but they aren’t the frustrating mistakes obviously made merely to set up the next plot point. They seem like characters who haven’t reached their full potential yet, but over the course of the novel we see them develop toward the cusp of adulthood and responsibility (this too was an issue The Wheel of Time struggled with at times).

Islington supplements Davian’s story with Caeden, a young man who woke up in the middle of the woods with no recollection of who he is – or whether he is guilty of the mass murder he’s accused of. Caeden’s struggle to discover who he is makes him one of the most interesting pieces to the story, and differentiates the book from merely being a copy of the most common fantasy tropes available. Caeden’s discovery of who he is and how he came to be in his current predicament is surprisingly powerful – while his attempt to discover who he is sounds like The Bourne Identity, Islington’s take makes Caeden an even more interesting character and has me looking forward to seeing how he responds in the books to come.

The Shadow of What Was Lost feels like a relatively light read – the paperback is 602 pages, but they fly by quickly. There are some moments of graphic violence, but for the most part, it is again in line with The Wheel of Time and its other inspirations.

The second book in the series, An Echo of Things to Come, is currently in progress, and I’ll certainly be checking it out when it’s published. Now that Islington has built the foundation for the story, he can break even further away from his influences, and with a full novel under his belt I can see the writing taking a leap forward as well. With the world and characters Islington has already crafted, he’s well on his way to an exciting fantasy trilogy that will appeal not only to The Wheel of Time readers, but to anybody looking for a coming-of-age fantasy tale with likeable characters and strong worldbuilding.


By Richard Bray

Richard Bray has been an avid fantasy reader since the fifth grade, when his father gave him a Lord of the Rings boxed set for Christmas. After earning his journalism degree from Texas A&M University, he spent more than 10 years writing, shooting photos and editing in the newspaper industry before transitioning to media relations. He lives with his fiancé and two dogs inside walls cluttered with St. Louis Cardinals jerseys and enough swords to arm a small fellowship – including, of course, replicas of Sting and Anduril.

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