The Shadow Radiers (The Dragon Brigade #1)
Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes
DAW, 2012 (Tantor Audio, 2012)
Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes’ Shadow Raiders, the first book in the new Dragon Brigadeseries, is a book that I am simultaneously excited about and which I’m a little disappointed in. I first came across Shadow Raiders when I discovered an introductory adventure to an RPG based in the same world and uses the Cortex system (designed by the folks at Margaret Weis Productions and first used in the Firefly RPG). While I’ve yet to try a Cortex game the world it was set in full of floating island countries, airships, swashbuckling, intrigue, and adventure was exciting enough that I decided to give the novel a shot.
The novel follows the adventures of a group heroes for hire calling themselves The Cadre of the Lost lead by Stephano de Guichen, the former leader of the Dragon Brigade (the unit has since been retired) The Cadre is sort of a Firefly-like band of misfits including the mercenary Dag, the pilot Miri, the simple and traumatized Gythe, and the rakish Rodrigo. Early in the novel the Cadre is hired by Stephano’s estranged mother, the Countess de Marjolaine, to track down a missing magical crafter who may be in possession of startling magical discovery. Simultaneously Father Jacob Northrop, a member of the Church’s Arcanun (the arm of the church tasked with dealing with magic) is hot on the trail of an infamous mage known as The Warlock. Norhrop, along with his bodyguard Sir Ander Martel and scribe Brother Barnaby are sent to investigate a massacre at an abbey. While these seemingly disparate plot threads at first appear unrelated it should be a surprise that the Cadre and Father Jacob soon cross paths and that both their missions are far more important than either realize.
Shadow Raiders has a lot going for it. The world of Aeronne is a vibrant and exciting setting taking the familiarity of the Age of Sail and setting instead of on the seas but on continents which float on a magical substance known as the Breath of God. This is a world with tense politics and motivations within even one country may often be at odds depending on the agencies involved. There are desperate secrets, and wonders, and yes even dragons. The characters all work for the most part even if they tend to fall into familiar archetypes. The authors actual manage to subvert those archetypes, or at least offer some freshness, by interlacing a strong sense of history and deep relationships amongst the various members of the Cadre of the Lost. While this occasionally gives the impression that the reader has arrived in the middles of things it also creates a sense of camaraderie and family amongst the Cadre that feels very organic.
Shadow Raiders is a novel that is definitely at its best when it comes to action. The novel includes several set pieces, high points across the novel’s plot that tend to cap off many of the big revelations that occur over its course. However, these bouts of intense action are often interspersed with long sections of exposition and explanation that can at time grow a bit tiring. Furthermore there are times when the novel’s coincidences just happen to feel a bit too telegraphed; there was one particularly eye-rolling scene in a cafe that just felt a bit too contrived. In fact I often felt like the presence of DuBois, the Church’s main spy, was a bit extraneous and unnecessary. Much of what he says and does could have easily been conveyed via Father Jacob’s narrative and overall I felt DuBois’ presence didn’t add too much too the novel.
While note perfect by any means I found Shadow Raiders to be an entertaining and accomplished entry in a new world and a new series. Weis and Krammes have shown readers a vibrant and fully fleshed out new settings that is ripe for explanation. The thrilling action and startling revelations about the world that occur over the course of the novel tells a complete tale while simultaneously whetting the appetite for future entries. While I would have loved to see more dragons (the series titular Dragon Brigade no longer exists) in the novel, particularly thanks to the seemingly complex social hierarchy of dragon mentioned in the novel, I have high hopes that more dragons will be seen in future novels. Fans who enjoyed the action of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, or those who like their fantasy influenced as much by Dumas as Tolkien shouldn’t hesitate to give Shadow Raiders a chance.