Cast In ShadowCast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara is in essence about a tough, capable police detective who wields a sword in a fantasy world populated by lion-people, hawk-people, elves, and others. This would normally be an ideal style of story to me. There's a lot of good to this story, as well as a few issues.
First, the good. I enjoy the mix of races and characters that Sagara has created. Heroine Kaylin isn't a perfect, always-do-right heroine that you often find in stories like these. She's got flaws and issues. She's messy. She's always late. She's not good with holding her tongue. Still, you also can see where all of this came from. She grew up an orphan in the slums. She had no parents to guide her. She hides from patrols as a matter of course; it's built into her soul. The rough childhood creased her actions in ways it's hard for her to now even realize.
And, as often happens in these stories, "just as she thought she was out" ... she gets pulled back in again. Her police leader orders her to go back deep into the slums to figure out a string of murders. She has to take with her the one man she hates with all her heart - the man who had been by her side in the slums and who then betrayed her.
The world is a mix of magic and medieval, a world where dragons exist and Kaylin wields knives with great talent. It's not thought of as "odd" that females are capable warriors. In fact, in the lion race it's assumed the women are the ones with power. There are both women and men serving side by side equally on the force. I appreciate all of this greatly. It's only a few decades ago that this would have seemed "unusual". Now it seems normal and natural. I'm thrilled by that.
So there's a lot of good here that I appreciate. Now to the issues.
There should have been polishing work done by a good editing team. The writing, while generally decent, has some issues. The author is very, very fond of the phrase very, very and it gets very, very annoying in a very, very short period of time. Some sentences are unnaturally convoluted and leave the reader wondering just who is talking and who they are referring to.
The world many times seems to exist in a certain way solely for plot reasons. Few areas are fleshed out thoroughly. We know there's a city, and that it has some slums, but we never get a sense of how this relates to the rest of the planet. Is it the only city? Are there other lords in other places? There's a Dragon ruling this city - is he a dictator? Does he simply rule "forever"? There's no context for the story and that detracts from it. It's like reading a fairy tale, "once upon a time there was a city ruled by a dragon ..." But at least there you make the assumption it's on a planet like Earth with lots of other cities and people and there are other cities around it. Here we have no idea at all.
I found the premise a bit shaky. I don't want to give away spoilers, but the issue the plot revolves around seems far-fetched to be kept a secret this whole time. It would have made far more sense for it to be discussed and known about, for all sorts of reasons. I think the story would have benefited from that as well. It would have made the progression of events "make sense" rather than seeming to happen to keep the plot moving towards what the author wanted to happen.
I found the ending unsatisfying. It's as if the author knew up front she was going to write a series and this was just the introduction to the "real story". So we invest the time and energy into the plot and then at the end it doesn't feel resolved. To go with that thought, some listings have this in the "romance" category and traditional romance readers will find the book unsatisfying. It's more of a drama that has men and women in it who are sometimes interested in each other. If a reader is looking for an ending that wraps everything up and gives a sense of completion, they won't find it here.
So with that all being said, I do think this book has its audience. You have to be in it for the fun fantasy-romp, not for romance. You have to be prepared to have multiple books in the series on hand, and know things don't "wrap up" in this one. You have to be tolerant of a loose writing style that has challenges. You have to be willing to ignore greater issues of why or where or context and just go with the flow in this particular little mini-realm. If you can read from that mindset, there's fun dialogue, intriguing characters, and a female lead who can hold her own. Except of course when she's crying in a man's arms, being carried by men, being saved from herself by men, and being lectured to about her mistakes by men :). I didn't say it's perfect.
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