Alexy Pehov, translated by Andrew Bromfield
Tor, 2010 (orig. 2002)
In Shadow Prowler, the first in a famed Russian fantasy series, the Master Thief Shadow Harold is tasked to find a means to stop the seemingly inexorable advance of the Unnamed One. Joined by a motley cast of characters he sets off on a quest that will save the world and, perhaps more importantly to our hero, make him a very rich man. While the jacket copy for Shadow Prowler, with its mention of the Unnamed One, and an elf princess, as well as it’s quest based nature appears to be a very traditional epic fantasy. Even Booklist’s review cites similarities to Tolkien’s work. Of course saying <insert epic fantasy series here> bears similarity to Tolkien’s work is kind of like saying water is wet. The jacket copy cites similarity to Moorcock’s Elric series which, while I haven’t read it yet (a travesty, I kn0w) hits a bit closer to the mark in placing Shadow Prowler closer to the sword and sorcery line of the fantasy world. Shadow Prowler reminded me most strongly of when I first read R. A. Salvatore’s The Halflings Gem,; especially give Pehov’s sense of action which as akin to Salvatore’s.
Mention of the Unnamed One and the Elf Princess are something of a blind anyway since neither quite mean what you think they do. I wont say anything about the Unnamed One, who he is or his role in the story, only to say it isn’t what you might initially believe it to be. As for the Elf Princess? Well the elves of Pehov’s world are, to put it mildly, a bit different. Though their arboreal nature remains intact their appearance more strongly mirrors the orcs, a species they are closely tied to in Shadow Prowler even more then they are in Tolkien’s work. Pehov throws in some other “familiar” races, gnomes and dwarves in particular; though it is the former that have a penchant for beards rather then the latter. Indeed the elf/dwarf animosity coined by Tolkien is left by the wayside in favor of ancient deep-seeded animosity between the gnomes (tinkers and gunsmiths) and dwarves (stoneworkers and metalsmiths). Late in the novel some of the best dialogue occurs between a gnome and a dwarf, two of the elite Wild Hearts, who have a strong if rather argumentative bond of friendship.
Shadow Prowler is a well paced novel; sort of. The plot moves along at a quick clip and includes a lengthy stay (and whirlwind exploration) the city of Avendoom and its history before moving onto the questing proper. The tradition between the two is actually quite smooth and both are full of excitement. However I felt that the sections in Avendoom had a bit more impact to them. Pehov and Blomfield do a wonderful job, through our thief-hero Harold, of capturing the shadowy nature of Avendoom and breathe a great deal of life into the city. On the other hand, while the road section of the novel gives us a chance to get to know other characters, it does very little to capture the character of the the kingdom surrounding Avendoom.
Now, onto that “sort of.” Shadow Prowler contains not one, but three lengthy flashbacks. Each of these are typically accompanied by a moment that had me eagerly awaiting to see what happened to Harold only to be greeted, rather harshly, by italicized text (the last one is a bit more unexpected). Now complaining about these breaking the pacing is kind of a bit two-faced on my part. I’m almost 100% if they weren’t there I’d be complaining that there was too much lengthy exposition and info-dumping. Furthermore, as for the first two flashbacks, they are immediately followed by important changes to Harold that, pacing asside, merit their inclusion.
The novel is in the first person told entirely from Harold’s perspective. I was sold on this view right in the first chapter as the master thief mused about the nature of shadow “The shadow is life, freedom, money, and reputation.” and later “…to compare it [shadow] to darkness is stupid, to say the least.” While these have the appearance of being random philosophical musings they are in fact an important thematic link to the novel as a whole and is directly indicative of Harold’s role in the story. John, over at Grasping for the Wind, pointed out Harold’s tendency to refer to himself in the third person which on occasion, an oddity that, I agree, manages to be a charming eccentricity of the character and the text; in fact reminded me a bit of Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers (“Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he….”).
Blomfield’s translation doesn’t always feel quite right. I don’t have anything specific I can really point to but there are moments where the tone feels just a bit off, where a particular phrase doesn’t quite ring true or clashes with the tone of the passage that immediately preceded it. It isn’t enough to put me off the novel but it was enough that I struggled completely engaging at the start. Things smooth out as the novel goes on, perhaps as Blomfield gets a better grip on Pehov’s voice and I hope that further volumes maintain the level evidenced towards the latter half of the novel. Of course as Umberto Eco put it: “The job of translation is a trial and error process, very similar to what happens in an Oriental bazaar when you are buying a carpet. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10 and after an hour of bargaining you agree on 50.” I always find myself wondering just how a translated work really reads in its original language.
If you’re interested in fantasy, particularly of the sword and sorcery variety, if you’ve enjoyed authors like R. A. Salvatore, Fritz Leiber, and even Michael Sullivan then I think you’ll enjoy Alexy Prohov’s Shadow Prowler. Fans of a new wave fantasy looking for something a bit more traditional need look no further, nor should they be afraid that tradition means a lack of originality. For all its thematic ties to traditional sword and sorcery Shadow Prowler manages to inject originality into the mix. I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume in the series and can’t wait to see if, or how, Harold pulls off his heist.
Note: I love, love, love the original Russian artwork by artist Oleg Yudin. It is vibrant colorful and hearkens back to the glory days of Darrel Sweet and Larry Elmore. Why Tor went with the somewhat bland cover art, particular with their stunning work on the Wheel of Time ebook covers and the wonderful art for Sanderson’s Way of Kings, is beyond me. Check out the image below and head on over to the gallery on Pehov’s site for more: