The Office of Shadow
The Office of Shadow is the sequel the Sturge’s novel debut Midwinter. Midwinter, the tale of a disgraced soldier and his prisoner cohorts who are sent on a suicide mission on behalf of the fey queen Titania was an entertaining though somewhat flawed debut. The Office of Shadow take one of those criminals, Silverdun, a womanizing elf lord in Midwinter and a somewhat bored priest here and turns him into a Shadow; a spy and assassin for the summer queen. Where in Midwinter I criticized Silverdun as something of foil for Mauritane, the hero of Midwinter, in The Office of Shadow the rakish lord really comes into his own and the sly, sarcastic wit of the previous book is given added depth and motivation for his action in service to the crown. Silverdun isn’t the only one expanded upon here as Sturges does a great job at adding to the background history of his version of Faerie from the religious conflicts, to the nature of magic, and even the rivalry between the two fey queens Sturges manages to touch upon all without diverging from the rapid fire pacing that makes this novel a joy to read.
In addition to Silverdun, Sturges introduces a more stoic counterpart in the form of Ironfoot. A soldier/scholar recruited alongside Silverdun and whose research into the mega weapon glimpsed at the end of Midwinter, the einswrath, influences his recruitment into the titular Shadows. Much like Silverdun’s role in Midwinter I saw Ironfoot’s role, at least partially, as something of a foil to Silverdun. Silverdun is impulsive in action, acting on instinct where Ironfoot takes a more considered approach. Sturges goes a bit further with Ironfoot’s characterization here than he did with Silverdun’s in Midwinter offering a bit more in terms of backstory, and the forces that drive Ironfoot forward, than I remember getting about Silverdun during his introduction.
Also among the Shadows is the disturbing Sela. Sela is a difficult character to get a grasp on an empath of disturbing skill, she spends the novel bound by silvered iron in order to dampen her skill, yet surprisingly cold and removed. Indeed I still find myself somewhat confused about the nature of her power and the things she was brainwashed to believe during her youth. While Sela ends up playing a vital role to the plot I was never completely satisfied or clear about her character outside of that role. While Sturges makes an attempt to breath life into her, and succeeds to a certain extent, her presence seems more like a slightly contrived bit of deus ex machina.
The Office of Shadow skirts along a line of religious subtext. Not outright conflict per se but light is shone on the difference between worshipers of the Cthonic Gods and the Adonic faith. The latter occurs primarily though flashbacks to Silverdun’s youth whose mother, a faithful Adonite, plays strong contrast to the vain and prideful man Silverdun later becomes. During these section I was somewhat thrown by comments made by Silverdun’s mother which I wasn’t sure were simply the hopeful desires of a deeply faithful mother for son or something deeper and more mysterious. I also could have sworn there was a comment by Silverdun’s mother along the lines of “I married your father so you could have the best opportunities possible.” Which struck me as odd, but never really elaborated on. I was left with the feeling during these flashbacks that there is something a bit more, just beneath the surface, that we’re (and Silverdun is) missing.
A definite improvement over Midwinter, The Office Shadow leaves me excited to see where Sturges takes his world next. This series so far bucks the fantasy series trend offering two related novels that stand well on their own or in sequence. Indeed The Office of Shadow is a complete tale from beginning to end wrapping everything up nicely and leaving me satisfied. At the same time it is a testament to Sturges’ skill with characterization that he left me hungry for more time with Silverdun, Paet, and company. The climax of The Office of Shadow is some thrilling fiction and the revelation of the nature of the Einswrath weapon is a wonderful twist that I didn’t see coming. Sturges craft continues to improve and I look forward to seeing where he goes next.