From the other reviews here on Goodreads, I am relieved to see that I am not the only one whose dominant feeling while reading Cast in Shadow was one of confusion. Michelle Sagara has clearly come up with a creative, perhaps even compelling world. It’s populated by all sorts of fascinating species: the immortal Barrani and Dragons and Tha'lani, the mortal humans and Leontine and Aerians. Elantra is a city like many others in fantasy, poised on that brink of industrialization, the throbbing heart of an empire riddled with corruption, magical or otherwise. Amidst all this, Sagara gives us a female protagonist who has clawed her way up from poverty and destitution to be the youngest member of the Hawks, the crime-solving unit of Elantra’s judiciary. And Kaylin’s stake in this case is personal, with all the attendant baggage and issues one would expect. With all of these components, Cast in Shadow should be an awesome urban fantasy thriller. But it’s not.
As others have singled out, the problem is one of context. Sagara is inconsistent in how and when she chooses to deliver her exposition. The first few chapters are an almost overwhelming soup of names and information; then the flow diminishes to a mere trickle for the rest of the novel. Time and again, characters will be poised on the brink of a big revelation, only for them to stop up their mouths and say, “No, you aren’t ready for that.” Half of this book consists of various people from different species alluding to aspects of their culture that never gets explained. Sometimes, when an author does this, it’s to build tension and make the audience yearn to know more. Indeed I did—except I never felt like I got a payoff at the end. I just felt confused.
The plot itself is simple enough to understand. Kaylin used to be an impoverished child, orphaned after the death of her mother, living in the fiefdom of Nightshade. Think urban gang warfare in a pre-industrial city. Eventually (we’re never quite told how) she escapes this area of Elantra and manages to enrol in the Hawks, where she becomes an up-and-coming investigator. She has intense, personal relationships with high-ranking members, such as Sergeant Marcus Kassan, a Leontine (every bit as lion-like as the name implies) and the Hawklord himself, an Aerian. Kaylin is special in every sense of the word, for she has magical powers she can’t trust herself to control. These make her a danger, one that the Hawklord has perhaps unwisely vouchsafed for. And when it turns out that the murders are death magic sacrifices designed to turn Kaylin into a superpowered killing machine … well, that spoils everyone’s day.
Cast in Shadow is not a complicated book, so there is no reason it should be so hard to follow. Yet I repeatedly found myself wonder who was present when characters were conversing, or indeed just what was happening during a particular scene. Sagara' description, like her exposition, is inconsistent in its ebb and flow. At times she belabours the nature of Kaylin’s wardrobe, the arrangement of a courtyard or a tower … and then suddenly, the verbiage gives way to conversations about magic or history, and just as suddenly I have no idea where these people are or what they’re doing.
It’s disheartening, because I would like to love this book. Kaylin is competent but flawed, wounded from her childhood in Nightshade and mistrustful of the people working with her on this case. Sagara does a good job portraying Kaylin’s growth throughout the novel, as she struggles with working with Severn, whom she blames for an unforgivable act while they were both in Nightshade. I really enjoyed watching Kaylin grapple with the various forces that seemed to be subtly—or not so subtly—manipulating and using her for their own ends. In this respect, I was fully willing to immerse myself into the politics of Elantra—if only Sagara had managed to make that possible.
And as I said above, the world of Elantra itself is rich with possibility. The city is cosmopolitan in nature, with the high court dominated by the immortal races while the mortals go about their lives in the more mercantile areas. It appears that the Emperor is a Dragon, a species whose members are humanoid for the most part but can transform into a more conventional serpentine form and wreak devastation. In many ways, Sagara’s species don’t seem all that original or creative—the Aerians have wings; the Leontines are lions! But, even if she doesn’t always communicate it as clearly as I would have liked, there are definitely hints of more complicated cultures underlying all these species. That’s something I would love to see more often in urban fantasy, which usually constrains its non-human ventures to more stereotypical conceptions of elves and dwarfs and ghouls….
Cast in Shadow is a book burdened by flawed writing. At its centre lies a good, old-fashioned mystery—multiple homicides with a clear intent in mind that means nothing good for Kaylin or for the Empire. From the ending, it is clear that Sagara has an entire series conceived in her mind—but I’m not sure I’m willing to read the next book. In the tenuous balance between storytelling and style, Sagara excels at the former but flounders at the latter.