A Critique of ‘In the Shadow of Lightning’ by Brian McClellan

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.

NOTE: I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t think I’m spelling the names correctly.


WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?

  • Adult, but anyone 15+ can read this.
  • Flintlock fantasy (use of canons, muskets)
  • Military fantasy (Military formations of the napoleonic bent)
    • Two of the primary characters are soldiers- a general and a captain.
    • I thought the use of battle tactics here was clever.
  • Hard Magic System (People can make and use sorcerous glass, usually in the form of earrings and jewelry, to gain supernatural powers. If you’ve read the ‘Green Bone’ books, it’s like that.)
  • Kickass female protagonists (There are multiple female POV characters. One is a warrior/detective, while the other is an engineer. Both are well done.)
  • Political Fantasy (Scheming and underhanded tactics are used by a secret conspiracy to take over the world.)
  • Lovecraftian spookiness (This uses the body horror aesthetic. There is no horror.)
  • Magic is an industrial product. And the secret ingredient in magic is running out…

IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?

Yes


MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I enjoyed this book. Personally, I think McClellan has improved as an author over the years. This is his best outing so far in the long-form format. It has competently written characters, an interesting plot, nice scheming, and good battle tactics. I also liked the whole ‘engineering’ aspect of the magic: basically magicians are forgemasters, who use magical reagents to create sorcerous jewelry. As a result, a lot of this book takes place in a forge, involving cables, crucibles, hammers and manual labor.

Are you in the mood for a very solid political/military/flintlock fantasy story? Read this. It has no weaknesses.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4/5 Stars)

Note: I default to giving good books 3 stars. I give this an above average rating.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I have read 6 of McClellan’s novels, one of his novellas, many of his short stories, and I also sometimes listen to his podcast. I am a fan. Bare that in mind as you read this review.


SIMILAR BOOKS

  • Promise of Blood/Powder Mage
    • This feels like a cop-out, using one of McClellan’s own books as a reference, but it’s accurate. That story involves a mystery, battle tactics, and strange magics. This book’s narrative is outwardly very similar, in that it uses similar plotlines, but on the execution, ‘Lightning’ is better written.
  • The Thousand Names
    • This book has multiple battle scenes, told from the perspective of a general planning out an offensive. It reminded me of Janus from the Shadow Campaign series.

CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

This book’s concept is ‘Magic is an industrial product, used to conquer nations. And the secret ingredient in magic is running out. A powerful guild matriarch is assassinated mere weeks before her guild builds a world-changing device which will fix this scarcity. Now her son must sleuth out who killed her, while trying to protect the invention from being stolen by the assassins. In the background of this, is a war against a nearby city-state, and it’s up to the heroes to save the day.’

I thought this book was very well executed. I particularly enjoyed the mystery story. The author did a very good job in steadily pacing out the mystery reveals to keep the pacing of the story going.


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

McClellan has never had the most nuanced characters (with a few exceptions). I’m happy to say that pretty much across the board McClellan has improved in his characterization skills. This book had 4 main POV characters: the Lightning Prince, the Engineer, the Sleuth and the Warrior. All of them show that improvement.

Spoilers to follow.

Demir the Lightning Prince is the primary protagonist. His character arc revolves around regaining his confidence after it was shattered in the prologue. Demir is an immensely skilled military tactician, but at the apex of his military career an unknown traitor used Demir’s name to commit war crimes. Demir had a mental breakdown, and fled. In the decade since then, he used his massive intellect to become a con-man. The book begins with his mother’s death, forcing him to come back and not only take her place, but to avenge her.

I liked his character arc. He has personality dynamism in this arc, starting from a state of certainty, transferring into uncertainty, and transitioning into a state of confidence again. I would have liked if the narrative showed more of his con-artistry ways, but overall he was well done.

Kizzie is a childhood friend of Demir, and a close confidant of his dead mother. After her death, Demir employs Kizzie to find the killers. I liked Kizzie the most out of all the characters in this book. While she did not really have a dynamic character arc like Demir, she did have multiple conflicting motives. You see, Kizzie is the bastard daughter of one of the book’s side antagonists. She feels torn loyalty between Demir (protagonist) and her father (antagonist). This dynamic worked really well, making her feel stretched in two directions, trying to honor two masters with conflicting loyalties.

Thessa is the engineer of the story. It’s her job to reverse engineer and rebuild a mysterious device with the potential to revolutionize the world’s magic system. I liked her as a character, but I have to say she didn’t have much of a character arc. She didn’t have the dynamism of Demir or the conflicting loyalties of Kizzie. She served as a perspective to flesh out the neat magic system, and was an outsider to the guild politics so we readers used her as an outsider’s lens on events. She was the most upstanding ‘good’ person of the POV characters, so she was easy to root for.

The fourth POV was the Ram (apologies, I forget his name). He was Demir’s uncle, and a front-lines warrior as opposed to Demir being a military tactician. His perspective was the main perspective for the war. He also is a user/abuser of the magic system, using it to fight in battle. So where Thessa explores the creation of the magical glass, the Ram uses the glass in battle to kill people. This magic system causes people to rot away from the inside out, so the Ram was the perspective we used to explore that degradation. I enjoyed his perspective, because he’s started going insane due to the glass rot. He’s a good man, but is haunted by hallucinations.

Overall, I enjoyed these characters more than I enjoyed those in the first Powder Mage trilogy, and I liked them on-par or a little better than those in the second Powder Mage trilogy. While reading this novel, I enjoyed switching between perspectives because I liked all of them. Are they on par with characters like Kvothe or Fitz? No, none of the characters in this are the best in the genre. But these POV characters are solid, smart and serve the story well. They have agency, and are entertaining to read about.

As for the side characters, I don’t really have much to write about. I will say that I would have liked if Demir’s mother- the assassinated matriarch- actually appeared in this story. She loomed like a titan over events, so I wanted to meet her. I likewise wanted more from the other side characters. None of them were bad, but only one or two of them were especially memorable.


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This book had a constant sense of forward momentum. The author did something clever, in having six people kill the matriarch. Then the author had Kizzie catch them one at a time, over the course of the story. By catching them one-at-a-time like this, it drip-fed a sense of forward momentum to the plot, so that even if one of the other plotlines was slowed down, that mystery plot was constantly moving forward. I enjoyed Kizzie’s sections most because I knew that something would always happen when reading her sections.

SPOILERS

I was mildly disappointed that the mystery wound up being un-guessable. The narrative introduced a new character- a priest- who had not yet appeared in the story as a major character and made him the final villain. This is book 1 in a series so I’m guessing the priest is the series’ Big Bad villain, so the author felt compelled to include him, but I was still a little disappointed by his introduction. Why couldn’t the tall man have been the final villain? By taking the focus away from the tall man at the end, I felt the story suffers. The tall man was this book’s primary villain, not the priest. The priest could have been introduced earlier in the story to set up the rest of the series and still have served the same outcome.

This book had a slightly slow start. However, this is a doorstopper fantasy genre story, so slow starts are genre standard.

This book had 4 POV characters, and each one had their own structure. I’ll analyze two of them here.

Thessa: I think Thessa’s plot arc was a five act structure.

  • The Attack on the Glass Forge
    • Thessa starts as an assistant in the assassinated Matriarch’s glass forge. After her death, it’s attacked and she’s made a slave by the matriarch’s enemies
  • Slavery
    • As an enslaved person, she’s forced to make godglass for her enemies. She tries to protect her fellow survivors of the attack.
    • She’s freed by Demir, and together they burn down the slaving glass forge.
  • The Deal
    • Demir and Thessa make a deal: Thessa re-creates the pheonix machine from her master’s notes, and in return she gets to keep half the proceeds.
    • Her forge in the city is attacked by Demir’s enemies. They’re forced to relocate out of the city to a secret location.
  • The Lightning Forge
    • Thessa recreates, and improves upon, the machine her master invented. It’s fueled by lightning, using that energy to recharge magical jewelry.
    • They’re discovered, and there’s a traitor in their midst.
  • The Final Attack
    • The enemy army attacks their secret location, lured by the traitor. They fight back, and the phoenix engine is stolen.

I liked her character arc. She begins the book an assistant glassmaker, and ends it a glassmaking master. This change is true in both a literal way (her skills improve) as well as a metaphorical one (she increases in confidence and gains the leadership skills of a glassmaking master who runs a forge).

If I were to critique Thessa’s character arc, I’d say that the slavery story beat from the first half of the story wasn’t really continued on to the second half. Her enemies in the first half were different from those in the second half. It made her section feel a bit disjointed, having built up one faction as enemies (the Magna) only to have her fight another faction at the end (the Grent).

Demir: Demir’s character arc followed the 3 act format.

  • The Prologue
    • In the prologue, Demir led a successful military campaign, only to have a betrayer turn the tables on him and cause the campaign to end in disgrace.
  • The Assassination and recruiting Kizzie
    • The book begins with Demir’s mother’s assassination, and he’s forced to return home to replace and avenge her. After his disgrace, he’s not confident in his abilities to lead, so he recruits his old friends Kizzie and Baby Montego in his campaign of revenge.
    • He’s uncertain of himself. He’s lost his self-control and charisma of yesteryear, and is forced to use brute force to defeat his enemies. This comes back to bite him, getting him imprisoned.
  • Being recruited to lead the army
    • After his nation’s army officers are assassinated, Demir is literally the only remaining person with military leadership experience left. He’s recruited to lead the army.
    • While serving, he regains his confidence.

Demir’s character arc is simple: he begins the story confident, in the prologue. He loses that confidence in the prologue. For the first 1/2 the book he lacks confidence. Then about the midway point he regains his confidence, and resumes being the Lightning Prince of military legend. I would have liked if Demir and his primary antagonist- the genius enemy military tactician- had more interaction at the start. Maybe if Demir was her personal assistant in the prologue, or a pen-pal, or something. As is, Demir didn’t really have much of an emotional investment in defeating her. Emotional investment is the bread and butter of good storytelling.

As for the Ram and Kizzie, I don’t really feel like they had much in the way of character arcs. The Ram and Kizzie remained fairly static throughout. These outcomes are both fine; this is book 1 in a series, their character arcs will come later. It’s unreasonable to expect an author to juggle four POV character arcs in a single book.

One final thing about the structure: the author arranged the ending so all four of the POV characters were in fight scenes at the same time at the end of the book. It made the book crescendo in a pleasing way.


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I liked this book’s plot; it handled it well. I’ve already explained why I enjoyed it above, so I’ll speak no more of it here.

I felt that the book’s stakes could have been better explored. The book constantly had it as a threat that the Grappo guildhouse could have been dissolved. Why was that potentially a bad thing? I personally would have liked if the narrative established an example of guildhouse dissolution happening in the early part of the story to show exactly why that would be bad. Would all of the Grappo clients go homeless? Lose their property, jobs? I wanted to see it, not be told it. Show, don’t tell.

The book had good tension. I liked how all the characters had near-death experiences at least once, barely dodging assassins sent after them. But if I were this books editor and I were tasked to improve upon this already good tension, I would suggest that the tall man assassin would attempt to kill all four of the different protagonists at different points. That way his eventual defeat would feel better, and impact all four POVs.

This book had high tension. At the same time, it never felt like the tension got too hot; by swapping between so many POV characters, when one of them was doing something exciting, another is doing something less interesting, so the reader never gets overwhelmed or bored. The author handled this aspect of the storytelling well.


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

The book’s tone is pretty much the same as other of McClellan’s long-form work: standard fantasy about war and combat, without dwelling on the darkness. It has a similar vibe to Sanderson, or Jordan, or Sullivan.

The prose was functional window-pane fantasy prose, workmanly, and it gets out of the reader’s way without being ostentatious. This is not stained-glass prose, art for art’s sake; this book sets out suspend disbelief, and it succeeds.

This book had themes of betrayal and loyalty. This is a VERY political novel, so these themes are no surprise. Also, Demir and Thessa had character arcs involving building confidence in themselves and their leadership skills.


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

The setting reminded me of a fusion of a gunpowder empire with the social dynamics of an early Roman city state- namely of a system of patronage between powerful families with client businesses/families. I thought it was fascinating how Demir felt the weight of responsibility towards the clients of his family, now that his mother is dead and it falls to him to be their patron.

If I have a small complaint about the worldbuilding, it seemed like the setting lacked depth. What happened 100 years before the start of the story? 500 years? 1000? What sort of foods do people eat here? What do they wear? What kind of art do they hang on their walls? Did I just miss these details? I don’t need to know all the answers to these questions, or even most of them. I would like to have a few more details to make the setting stand out.

I liked how the author included so many different religions as a plotpoint, and I would have liked it if they were further explored to flesh out this world. Similarly, the magic is called ‘godglass;’ is it related in some way to a god or something likewise supernatural?

Finally, about the Lovecraftian monsters. They were a massive part of the story, but went entirely unexplained. I have mixed feelings about them. I wanted some sort of explanation, but we got none; I have the feeling the author is keeping that secret in reserve for book 2. Ordinarily I’d say ‘the spooky eldritch monsters are cool precisely because they remained mysterious. That’s what makes Lovecraftian stuff cool: it’s inexplicable.’

The book’s main godglass magic system is very orderly, being all about chemistry and engineering. There’s no room for lovecraftianism in this system. AND BECAUSE there’s no room for the Lovecraftian aesthetic in this engineering based system, is precisely why the aesthetic works so well here. Lovecraftian Horror works by introducing the inexplicable and strange into a well-ordered world. It’s the contrast of uptight Victorian moral values against the unruly (colonized) world outside.

Lovecraftian Horror is all about context, contrasting the mundane and the strange.

In this book’s case, the lovecraftian trope was largely well done. I’d compare it to it’s use in the video game ‘Bloodborne,’ a game which is advertised and presents itself as traditional gothic horror (werewolves in London!), only to have more and more inexplicable stuff happen as the story progresses, until around the halfway point of the game you’re killing little grey men and brain-sucker monsters (Lovecraft). This book is similar; for the first half of the book it appears like one sort of book (a conspiracy and war) only to have weird monsters occasionally show themselves starting at about the halfway point(Lovecraft).

I wanted more Horror from the story. Nothing about this book was genre horror (no gore, no heroes slowly descending into madness, no grimdark, that sort of thing). The lovecraft aesthetic was only skin deep. I hope in future books the author explores the horror of this situation a little more, instead of just using the aesthetic to make cool monsters to fight against. Also, I want more than just monsters. I am a fan of this trope; give me tentacles! Give me mad science experiments! Show me human nature’s inner beast, hiding within that Victorian uptight morality! That sort of thing.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

Very good. The narrator did a good job of giving different characters different voices. The narrator gave some of them a Caribbean accent which worked really well. I think the narration did a good job of improving my estimation of this book. I gave it 4 stars instead of 3 because of the audiobook.


LESSONS LEARNED

As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:

  • When you have multiple POVs, stagger high tension and low tension scenes between the perspectives, so your reader doesn’t overdose on too many high-tension or low-tension scenes in a row. THE EXCEPTION to this is at the very end of the story, when you have all the perspectives finish at a high point to make a memorable climax.
  • Lovecraftian Horror: the Lovecraftian aesthetic of being inexplicably terrifying works well as a fantasy trope, but only when it’s used to contrast an otherwise ‘normal’ setting.
    • This book’s main magic system is all about chemistry and engineering. There is no room in this system for Lovecraftianism.
    • AND BECAUSE there’s no room for the Lovecraftian aesthetic in this magic system is precisely why the Lovecraftian aesthetic works so well. Lovecraftian Horror works by introducing inexplicable and disturbing factors in a well-ordered world. The contrast of Victorian tame sensibilities (aka this book’s engineering magic) with the chaotic and strange (aka this book’s monsters).
    • The Lovecraftian aesthetic worked well here due to that contrast, but it would have worked even better if the everyday world of this setting was further fleshed out, to make the setting even more ordinary. What sort of breakfast do people eat? What tea do they drink? What sort of clothing do people wear? That sort of thing.

Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.


SUMMARY

This is a good book. It has good characters, a great plot, great pacing, solid structure, good setting/worldbuilding… you get the idea. I enjoyed reading this because no aspect of it was bad. The author is talented in all aspects. While this is not a mind-blowingly amazing book, I found it to be entertaining and left me wanting more.

I give it the highest praise: I intend to buy book 2.


Goodreads

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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