Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov is the first book translated into English from The Chronicles of Siala trilogy, an award winning series in Russia. The book was translated by Andrew Bromfield, who also translated the popular Night Watch series.
Shadow Harold is a master thief in the great city of Avendoom. He’s done his best to remain in the shadows; however, after one particularly difficult heist, Harold is given a choice — assist a group of heroes in a desperate quest to impede the Nameless One’s forces or rot away in prison. It sounds like a simple decision, but Harold has never wanted to be a hero. Now, along with an Elfin princess, the king’s goblin court jester, and a group of brave and fearless soldiers, Harold is about to embark on the greatest commission of his life.
To retrieve a powerful item of magic, this diverse group must learn to trust each other while traveling through perilous lands and into the underground tombs of Hrad Spein, a place of great power and the home of unspeakable terrors. Success could mean preventing the Nameless One and his minions from attacking Avendome and eliminating humankind and their allies forever. Harold may hold the key to saving the world in his hand, but he would rather toss it into a deep abyss and go back to picking pockets.
Featuring elves, ogres, dwarves, and gnomes, an impossible quest to retrieve a magical item, a reluctant thief, and the nameless evil doers poised to strike, Shadow Prowler uses every fantasy cliché in the genre. I prefer the unexpected, so at first glance I was hesitant to pick this one up, but when I heard the series was an award winner in Russia, I decided to give it a go (plus I won a free copy — thank you, Tor). I was impressed with Pehov’s clever re-imagining of familiar motifs. From the descriptions and origins of each race to the exciting world around them, Pehov has a unique vision. Pehov’s writing really shines in the characters, starting with the narrator, Harold.
Out of the shadows
The majority of the story is narrated by Harold, a Master thief who has done well keeping himself out of trouble. He is confident and witty and prefers to avoid direct conflict, instead relying on his street smarts or simply hiding in the shadows to stay alive.
The world around him is vast and full of life, but there are no info dumps in this book. We learn things as Harold does and take for granted what he already knows. When Harold utters a phrase like “may a h’san’kor devour my dear departed granny”, you’ll laugh as if this were an everyday saying here in the real world. The narration pulled me in completely. I felt like I was listening to Harold tell his tales at the pub over a mug of ale. He even occasionally refers to himself in the third person, which threw me off at first, but it’s clearly a personality quirk and adds even more depth to this already well-conceived character.
There are a few instances where the narrative switches to a third person viewpoint. These scenes are creatively inserted into the story and seamlessly drive the narrative forward. They contain some of the best writing in the book, giving a glimpse into the depth of Pehov’s world and providing a clear example of why this author is an award winner.
Thanks for the support
Every hero needs support, especially one as unaccustomed to heroism as Harold. Harold interacts with a broad assortment of friends and foes. From Harold’s portly mentor, a thief-turned-priest, to an oft injured would-be assassin, every character Harold meets in Avendoom sparkles with life.
Pehov did an excellent job of giving me a feeling of connectedness with Harold. As he discovered more about each member of his group, I did too. A great example are The Wilds Hearts: they start off as a jumbled group, but as the story progresses, they grow and change, each one taking on a unique personality as Harold gets to know them. (Props to Pehov for writing the hippest goblin jester in fantasy. Kli-Kli was awesome!)
At times Shadow Prowler felt like the novelization of a video game. During one quest Harold stops at a Dwarven owned shop and picks out a number of items — 12 bolts of ice, 12 of fire, a magic bottle, a rare chocobo egg — well, not the last one, but you get the point.
The combat was thrilling and the conflict filled with tension. One brawl in an inn called The Knife and Axe had me ducking for cover. Pehov’s action was superbly written. Whether a brief chase through the streets, an epic battle between vast armies, or an assassination attempt in a dark alley, each moment had my heart thumping.
Shadow Prowler includes two types of magic. The wizards practice a fast yet inaccurate magic, while the shamans practice a slow, ritualistic magic. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but both require a depth of understanding that is slowly disappearing from the world. Pehov succeeds in transforming an archaic design and reviving it with his unique vision; however, the magic lacked the same feeling of distinctness found in other aspects of the novel. Hopefully this will be more fleshed out in the next installment.
Why should you read this book?
At first glance Shadow Prowler doesn’t seem to be anything unique; however, Pehov reshapes the common tropes of the fantasy genre and creates an experience that feels original. Harold is a wonderful narrator who won me over quickly and the story surges at a breakneck pace. The ending was exciting and left me eager to receive my copy of the next installment of the trilogy, Shadow Chaser.
With an epic quest, enjoyable characters, plenty of action, and unexpected twists, I would highly recommend Shadow Prowler.