Thank you, Rebellion Publishing and Netgalley, for accepting my request to read this advanced copy and review it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its promises. There are slight spoilers for dialogue here but it doesn’t give away the plot.
Title: Shadow in the Empire of Light
Author: Jane Routley
Genre: Adult fantasy
Themes: Murder mystery, political turmoil and mages
First release: Rebellion Publishing (August 2020)
What I liked: Feminist promise and blurb on the cover.
What I didn’t like: Unlikable characters and flat world building.
Rating: ⭐⭐ (2 stars)
What is this? Shadow in the Empire of Light is a promising feminist fantasy story about mystery, family drama and playful magic. The story evolves around Shine, an orphan without magic in a family full of it. She lives with her eccentric aunt and telepathic cat. Their extended family arrives for the annual Fertility Festival and Shine is thrown into a mystery mixed with spies and playful magic. She has to choose where her loyalties lie and what she wants to achieve in the future. On top of that she also meets Shadow, an Outlander from the Ghostlands, who will bring even more complexity to her journey.
Why did I request this ARC? The cover was the first thing that pulled me in. It promises a magical story with supernatural creatures and the art nouveau style is beautiful. Reading the summary I was met with a creative take on the fantasy genre, taking playful magic and mixing it with mystery and questions of loyalty. It talked about supernatural beings, family dynamics and rich culture. The promise of feminism and sex positivity also meant a great deal to me. This is something I will never get tired of in literature and I can only applaud authors who attempt to write it. This is why I requested this ARC when I saw it. I was in the mood for some good magic and intrigue!
Magic. Murder. Mayhem. But keep it in the family.
My review: Finishing this book, I was met with conflicting feelings. The author claims to “write strong women” in her biography but I’m sorry to say I didn’t see them in this book. The majority of characters are disrespectful and unsympathetic, lacking development.
Quick disclaimer that examples I will give are located at the first 50% of the book. I intentionally didn’t want to give out information about the second half, because in my opinion people need to explore books on their own before they form any judgment on it.
Shine, the main character, is the sort of person that ignores people when they explain they’re uncomfortable with how she behaves. She continues to behave like this for her own gain. Scenes in this book are regularly given a distasteful vibe because of this. It also didn’t help her case that this book is written in first person.
He took the washing things behind the screen. The sound of him splashing around made me curious, but when I peered over the screen to see what is naked body was like, he squeaked and held the towel over his prick.
“Do you mind?” he said.
He sighed. “Ghosts do not like to show their naked bodies,” he said patiently.
“Oh, fair enough. I was just curious. You look like a normal man.”
I left him to it. If I stood in the right place, I could still see him in the mirror without his knowing. He was nicely shaped, but it was difficult to get over the sickly paleness of his skin. The sweet way he was enjoying his wash made me feel unfair for spying on him. He was as dependant on me as a child would be and deserved the same respect. I threw myself down on the bed.
I can’t relate to a character that spies on a man washing himself, especially when he clearly states he doesn’t want that. Although it’s implied Shine looks away, you’re still left wondering because it’s not described. She could still peek from her bed. Women throughout history have fought against being treated like this so in my opinion we don’t need scenes where the roles are reversed. Sex positivity is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but I find it infuriating when people force it upon others who don’t want to talk about it.
And Shine’s character does improve a little at about 70% in the book. But her change of heart is never explored. There’s no inner dialogue about what she thinks about her past behavior. Because of this, I found it hard to root for her. Her dynamic with Shadow regularly results into her racist thought process, talking about his skin and grammar. For me, this doesn’t build up a good character unless they’re met with consequences or relatable dialogue with others. And this never happens. I can understand Shine’s character has grown through her heritage and upbringing but I can’t encourage characters who are not being explored in a thoughtful manner.
And I think I understand what the author meant to do. In some way, the first chapters give the promise of a world based on discrimination, racial judgment and characters who will be confronted with their behavior, resulting in inner conflict and development. The book would achieve this if it included criticism or consequenses within scenes. In this way, the promised complexity and intrigue is ruined by its characters and the way dialogues are handled. A good example of how the book fails to deliver is a dialogue that made me question the purpose towards Shine’s character and the story. There was never any consequence or discussion for it.
“He really does speak our language. Is he normal down there?”
“I beg your pardon?” he snapped.
“Shadow, at least address her as my lady,” I told him. “He’s got no manners but doesn’t mean any harm.”
For me, none of the characters receive any development. I think the summary should be edited for this story because it promises more than it delivers. The idea for this book is 100% there but the execution is at 30%. Reading this and seeing its potential in family dynamics and world building, I think this book would be better executed as a (high) fantasy tome. World building remains flat by a lack of setting and the culture is ignored throughout shallow dialogues about “pricks” and “sickly paleness of one’s skin“. The story attempts to take on too much focus on all characters, magic systems and culture. A good example for me is the character of Kitti, Shine’s telepathic cat. This supernatural creature intrigued me from the beginning but I found myself hungry for more backstory. Kitti, in the end, has no real purpose towards the story and I wonder why she was created. She wasn’t even used a plot device. Maybe she was meant as a comical relief. If she was, it’s not my kind of humor and I’m not in the right audience.
Next to that is the concept of matriarchy buried in the culture. This would be very interesting to read if the reader could explore the history of this decision, or the motivation. Not through shallow dialogues talking about men’s personal parts.
If characters would be given more relatability through inner conflict, this might’ve been a good character driven story. The complexity of the world remains ignored by an overwhelming amount of characters without connection to the story, which resulted in me forgetting who was who. Reading this, I felt like I was given a draft for a promising story. It’s something I would 100% enjoy more if the story had been fleshed out. I feel like this book is also a build up to a sequel. If this ever releases, I would be interested to read it. I think the quality and premise of the sequel will influence my opinion on this book.
Summarised: Great idea, flat delivery. Seeing the potential, I think it would be better executed as a (high) fantasy tome. World building remains flat by a lack of setting and cultures are ignored by ways of shallow dialogue. I was left hungry for inner conflict, pushing characters through their story.
I’m disappointed this book failed to offer trigger warnings. Fitting trigger warnings would be rape and incest. And whether the author does write strong women, I will have to find out by reading her other books in the future. This is the first book I’ve read by Jane Routley.
What have you read recently?