Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
A Dream of Shadows is a vividly-written, character-driven fantasy adventure novel by Peter Elliott. It tends to lean on the side of dark fantasy. Although it isn't particularly violent, gory, or M-rated, it takes the perspective of miscreant characters who prefer to work and operate under the cover of night, frequently getting into violent conflict with those who stand in their way.
It follows burglar-turned-mercenary Vazeer the Lash as he is recruited to assassinate Count Ulan Gueritus, the infamous “Raving Blade,” a job Vazeer takes because of his desperate state. He even admits that dying on this mission wouldn't be the worst thing, giving us a hint of how miserable his relatively young life has been (“To tell you the truth, I almost welcomed it”).
As you might expect, this relatively straight-forward objective takes Vazeer on some winding, weaving turns, meeting new and old faces—friends and foes—and learning the hard way that things aren't what they initially seemed...
While the plot isn't particularly special, the characters and the world-building are next-level!
Vazeer, a so-call Shadow Bidder, is a particularly compelling character. He kinda reminds us, strangely, of Fool from The People Under the Stairs (although he's obviously older, likely in his 20s because the word “decades” is used to describe his experiences). Like Robin Hood, he's kinda a noble thief. You can tell that the government(s) in the world he lives in are not particularly good or well-meaning, and the common folk suffer as a result. People like Vazeer do what they do to survive.
One thing the author does really well is getting us into Vazeer's head. We learn about his hard life as an unwanted and abused orphan. We learn that he also has a rebellious and likely resentful spirit (“exasperated adult figures had tried desperately to control me”). We learn that he is rough around the edges, gaining the nickname “Scuff” because of all the fights he got into when he was younger. Still, we are also reminded that Vazeer—despite having a cool name, reputation, and nickname—isn't some kind of powerhouse. First of all, he claims he isn't particularly good at using large weapons like swords and maces. He's more like a ninja, a stealth fighter, an ambusher, a guerrilla fighter. He's probably an average-sized male, likely suffering some degree of malnutrition due to circumstances in the land. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in cunning, grit, and feistiness. In other words, he's a Daniel Bryan or an Edge. In fact, what's kinda funny is the description “ultimate opportunist” is used to describe Vazeer (a nickname for Edge). Hey, wait a minute... he's also said to come from a “Brood.” Does Peter Eliott watch pro wrestling?
You also get to know Vazeer on some deeper levels, including some semblance of hopes and dreams. His favorite quote is “The maddest and grandest of dreams will summon forth the means.” This implies that he sees these money-making/networking tasks he undertakes as stepping stones to eventual greatness, or at least a better life. His lifelong hero, the man who spoke/wrote his favorite quote, is King Aurellis Kaennamin, someone he seems to aspire to be like. All of this kinda reminds us of Griffith from Berserk. He also enjoys reading, and he never seems to shut up about his doggone reading chair and its harbeen (some kind of “Old World instrument” attached to the chair), probably the most valued thing(s) he owns.
You also get to know Vazeer's inner-demons: his self-deprecating thoughts, his doubt, and his guilt. He says, “I hope there isn't actually a Hell,” fearing that he has committed enough bad deeds to go there.
Other characters like Count Gueritus and Nascinthe are also standouts.
Let's talk about Nascinthe a little bit, Vazeer's sister-figure/childhood best friend/girlfriend. Nascinthe, like Vazeer, is a rather compelling character. Her bright blue eyes, cleanliness, and femininity stand in clear contrast to the darkness, dirtiness, grittiness, and masculinity that dominate Vazeer and his world. She is a bright spot in Vazeer's dark life. Vazeer says that he “felt something celestial” from her before then talking about hell.
Yet, because Vazeer loves her so much and wants to protect her so badly, he's willing to be apart from her, knowing that he invites danger. He also encourages her to use her talents to become an actress, pursuing her dream. This again highlights how great a character Vazeer is.
Nascinthe may be a candidate for “Hottest Character” and she and Vazeer may be nominees for “Best Couple”/ “Best Dynamic Duo.”
The other way in which this book shines is the world-building. You are introduced to a society that is sharply divided and segregated between groups and categories: Shadow Bidders, Grell runners, underlords, the overlord, counts, countesses, common soldiers, peasants. You get a feeling of this large, expansive land and all the different people in it.
The last way in which this book shines is how eloquently and vividly it is written. Here are some examples:
“...moist feminine taste”
“...metallic muscles stretched and frozen at their deadly apex”
“...the hot flush of victory”
There are countless examples of beautiful, descriptive language used.
However, it does get grating or cloying after a while, especially since it sometimes slows down the pacing. This book feels a lot longer than it is because of the way it's written, and fewer things happen than you'd expect to advance the plot. The plot just can't seem to get into that next gear, even when you get the twists and turns you do. You can't help but lose patience, especially when Vazeer starts describing his doggone reading chair and its precious harbeen thing for the 100th time. Character development is usually a positive thing, but this book takes it to the extreme and bogs us down into Vazeer's thoughts and the whole story of his life. It was like being stuck upside down on a roller-coaster at one time. Like, c'mon, let's go already!
Writing this review really helped us to appreciate the good about this book, so we elevated it from a 9.3 to a 9.4.
Check it out on Amazon!