“After centuries of calm, the Nameless One is stirring.” So opens the cover copy for Shadow Prowler.
A Nameless One, you say? Could this possibly be some kind of “evil overlord” (TVTropes) who wants to bend an entire land to his will? But surely there will be some resistance!
“Unless Shadow Harold, master thief, can find some way to stop them.”
A master thief named “Shadow Harold”, you say? Could he possibly be some kind of Lovable Rogue (TVTropes) who steals for fun and profit yet has a heart of gold?
“… accompanied on his quest by an Elfin princess, Miralissa…”
Elves, you say?
“… ten Wild Hearts, the most experienced and dangerous fighters in their world …”
Fantasy SEALs, you say?
“… and by the king’s court jester (who may be more than he seems … or less)”
A fool turning out to have a pivotal role in the plot, you say?
Shadow Prowler is one of those jewels of epic fantasy that fell out of the trope tree and literally hit every branch on the way down but still somehow manages to avoid being a total wreck. Alexey Pehov crams wizards, shamans, ogres, orcs, dwarves, gnomes, elves, and even some humans into this book. There is magic on a grand scale but mundane activities like theft and soldiering. There is a literal nameless Big Bad (and hints of an even Bigger Bad behind the Big Bad) who wants to swoop back in after centuries of being held at bay by a MacGuffin. If you’re coming to Shadow Prowler looking for “original” fantasy you’ll be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve been craving some good ol’fashioned epic fantasy, you might find this to be exactly what you need.
To be fair, Pehov embellishes and reinvents to a small extent. Take elves, for instance. These aren’t your typical Tolkienesque, statuesque, blond beauties. They are fanged cousins of the orcs. Similarly, the overarching plot involves a dungeon dive into a forbidden tomb. (Although this by itself is not original, I admit, the worldbuilding behind the story of the tomb is pretty cool, as are some of the other details Pehov includes. He’s lifting from a lot of sources, so it evens out nicely.)
Shadow Harold, the protagonist and narrator, becomes a reluctant sort of hero and prophecy figure. We meet him in the midst of a heist, which itself is a sort of audition for the main adventure. However, Pehov allows a side-quest to hijack the main narrative. This is not a standalone book and it literally just ends with no real resolution to any of the plot threads; you are so warned. The side-quest is interesting enough if you just enjoy hanging around Avendoom with Shadow Herald, but if you’re one of those people who skip talking to any NPCs except the ones you have to interact with to get the achievements and finish the game, you’re going to be bored for most of this book.
Much like the world, Shadow Harold himself and the plots he gets wrapped up in are straight from your typical pantheon of rogue-like adventures. For example, he has to steal from the deserving, steal from forbidden territory, and engineer a meeting of people who all want the same thing so that they will kill each other instead of him. Fortunately, Pehov’s writing is interesting and entertaining enough that you can overlook this deployment of standard ideas. I saw everything coming from a kilometre away, but I still took a good amount of delight in reading it. Is that a guilty pleasure? I don’t know.
That being said, I’m questioning whether I’ll pick up the next book in the series. I’m just not sure I’m invested in the story. Shadow Harold is a fun character, but do I care about him? Do I care about cookiecutter fantasy kingdom from standard fantasy world? Mehhhhh. The ride is fun but the memories are a bit jaded, I admit.
Shadow Prowler also falls flat in a few other areas. There is a notable dearth of women characters; Miralissa, the “elfin princess” is pretty much the only memorable one, and so she of course has a mystical role (not to mention being an Other in the form of an elf). Most of Harold’s antagonists have a buffoonish quality to them; he never really meets with any truly threatening resistance on an individual level. And, as a I said, the fact the entire book is leading up to the actual quest that Harold is supposed to go on is a bit of a letdown.
I will say that Andrew Bromfeld’s translation is impeccable. I don’t mean that in the sense that I understand Russian and can pass judgment on its accuracy. But this book reads as if it were written in English. It doesn’t feel forced at all; there are idioms in here that are natural to English speakers but would be odd if they were present in the original text. This is how translations should be, and Bromfeld seems to have nailed it. One minor quibble related to the writing, however: occasionally we get terms imported from our world, such as the use of Latin (“quod erat demonstrandum”) or Harold’s reference to “Wednesday”. It really throws me off when authors do this in fantasy worlds. It’s like, did their world invent a parallel Latin and days named after Norse gods? I don’t know if it’s Bromfeld or Pehov’s doing, but I don’t like it. curmudgeon harrumph
Bottom line: Shadow Prowler is a lot of fun, for some value of fun, but it isn’t innovative. This is one step down the ladder from Shannara, which is also a blatant Tolkien clone, but does innovative things with that. There’s something to be said for embracing the tropes and trying to use them in new and interesting ways, but that doesn’t happen here. If you can put up with that and just let it ride, then like me you’ll probably like the story enough to stick around and enjoy it. Pehov has a competent, careful, and reassuring way of plotting that, while perhaps more predictable than I like, is no less fulfilling for it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for fantasy that challenges and pushes back against the genre’s conventions, you’ll want to keep looking. Shadow Prowler is a clone, but it makes no bones and no secrets about this, and that’s why I’m OK with it.