S.E. rating: 3 of 5 stars
"To write sword-&-sorcery in the twenty-first century, it seemed to me, required a redefinition of the form. ‘The Shadow Cycles’ is my attempt at that redefinition – in effect, the formulation and deployment of a tarot." – Philip Emery
Emery’s Sword & Sorcery and Weird Works : I first learned of his work via the Demons: A Clash of Steel Anthology, in which his "Fifteen Breaths" appealed to me; it had a poetic, dreamy-weird style to it. Crossed his work again in Return of the Sword and was completely taken with his "The Last Scream of Carnage" (notably the editor's pick). It was again poetic, and pushed the bounds of the genre. His gothic, steampunk novel Necromantra was very enjoyable. His experimental The Shadow Cycles continues to push the weird/S&S genre, and I am glad to have read it. The book features an essay which details the history of the Sword & Sorcery genre and the author’s motivations to expand it in new ways.
The Shadow Cycles draws more upon Clark Ashton Smith’s poetic style than it does Robert E. Howard’s clear cut action. The pacing and scope match Michael Moorcock’s eternal champion series. In short, The Shadow Cycles is weird, dense narrarative. Reading takes focus since scarce dialogue, obtuse descriptions, a completely foreign fantasy world, and repeated stanzas make this disorienting.
Milieu & Style: The milieu containing the Uroboros event is featured over character development. There is a universe in which all the suns/planets were flooded/swallowed by a tangible shadow, and magical forces allow limited teleportation from other realms to steer the fate of two remaining serpents which serve as vessels for humanoids: one, a petrified, floating dragon; and two, a leviathan on life-support. The latter is a wondrous, horrific landscape in which humans live in arteries filled with “tallow warts” and resonating with “meat echoes.” Clive Barker fans would devour this stuff (excerpts below):
“Again there is a different cold. Bleak. Vast. Filled with moans. The chamber stretches into the distance, and throughout that length, hanging from the vaulty ceiling, are the same fleshy stalactites that strew the labyrinths. Except these are longer. And from them hang bare bodies. Men. Women. Children. Moaning.
The tendril-things curl around their necks, holding them just above the floor. Others meander among them. Gazing up at them. Nudging them so that they turn slightly. Pinching them. Considering. Because these tendrils, unlike human umbilical cords, not only nourish but leach. They give life to the suspended ones but at the same time soften tissue, suck bone brittle – until the time is right.”
And the exterior Shrike Wall:
“Leviathan moves on through the wakeless sea and the dragonreme slips down its flank. Across its leagues of back a spine of bony spikes stab out. One each spike is impaled a torn, livid body, and oriflamme of skin and sinew. The spike bores through the small of the back and up through the belly, bowing the body. Arms and legs loll down but not their heads. There are no heads.”
Undeveloped Characters and Muddled Conflict: Despite the book blurb, the book is not about Rorn. Nor is it about the first hero introduced, Gemmored… first of the mysterious party of five called the Phoenix Prey. Here's the book description:
With four others, all of different realms, Rorn is transported to a new world. The last magician of a race of magicians; another possessing and possessed by a vampiric labrys; a towering swordsman whose blade sucks out the evil of those it slays; an assassin shape-shedder. All five are plunged into a strangely black sea which ships sail across like dreams across obsidian - a sea of shadow. They find themselves in the midst of an uncanny war fought over generations but approaching a final apocalyptic battle where victory is to be won not by strength or strategy but by something far stranger.
The Phoenix Prey are collected across a multiverse by an omnipotent force; this party comprises:
1. Gemmored of Darkling Realm, a warrior with his Doom Sword
2. Gel of Gnomon Realm, a warrior with his labrys ax Bloodbane
3. Zantalliz of Voyage Realm, a librarian wizard
4. Harnak of Aftermath Realm – a shapeshifter
5. Rorn of Nightwake Realm – a ranger
These are mired in a conflict between the two serpent city-states at war, led by Sstheness (Leviathan Leader) and Phariane (Archivist of Dragon Keep). The cultures of Dragon Keep and Leviathan are bizarre but compelling. The characters, who have loads of potential, remain emotionally distant and their story arcs half developed. Plenty of potential epic threads are left incomplete and conflict obscured. It was difficult to know if enemies really posed a threat as main characters walk thru battles untouched at times and were occasionally teleported to other realms for unclear purposes; there are many sorties that seemed to have an imbalance enemy resistance (sometimes too little, sometimes way-too-much). The fate of the Phoenix Prey remained unfinished. A climax that promised betrayal and tension between the Prey was unfulfilled. Ultimately the cosmic “world” was awesomely weird but still not developed clearly enough to emotionally engage the reader. Fans of soap-opera, high fantasy will likely be disengaged.
A Worthy Experiment: The experimental The Shadow Cycles was a compelling read written by a passionate author. It will be enjoyed by aficionados of weird fiction, but will be inaccessible for the common fantasy reader. I will jump at the chance to read more of Emery’s works since I enjoy being pushed passed boundaries and he excels at that. I end with a snipet from his essay:
"… I hope ‘The Shadow Cycles; is at least a new version of the Howardian tarot that redefines the combination of blood and darkness and fear at the heart of sword-&-sorcery. – Philip Emery"
Major Arcana = Violence and the Numinous
1. S&S is intense. All else is subjugated to this effect.
2. S&S is potentially amoral.
3. S&S is the combination of violence and the numinous
4. S&S eschews explicit development of milieu or character or concept
5. S&S is naturally a short story form.
6. S&S contains an element of deathwish in its sensibility
7. S&S has a Chthonic sensibility
8. S&S has a potential element of tragedy in its sensibility
9. S&S combines explicit and implicit horror
10. The S&S protagonist is a loner
11. S&S addresses the irrational
12. S&S is about power
13. S&S is highly ‘visual’
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