The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington
Petrik’s rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
TS’s rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Licanius Trilogy (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic fantasy
Pages: 736 pages
Published: 3rd August 2014 (self-published). 8th November 2016 by Orbit (US) & 10th November 2016 by Orbit (UK).
Islington took the best part—and cut all the unnecessary bloating—of Wheel of Time, maintained the inspirations he got from Sanderson’s story, and Islington added his own twists and originality into this highly ambitious debut.
Three years. The Shadow of What Was Lost was recommended to me by my co-blogger, TS, for the first time in January 2017, and I have never gotten around to it until now. Honestly, the only excuse I had for postponing reading this series for so long—even though I shouldn’t—was because of the famous cliffhangers endings of each book in the series that I’ve heard of, and I was waiting for the series to be completed. For the past three years, I’ve been hearing that if you love The Wheel of Time and Sanderson’s books, you’re going to love this trilogy, and they’re not wrong. For clarification, I’m not even a fan of Wheel of Time, I have DNFed the series upon finishing the fourth installment, and I’m not sure when I’ll get back to it. I do, however, consider Sanderson as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time. If you’re a fan of either Wheel of Time or Sanderson’s work, or maybe both, I think you have a great chance of loving this debut; I certainly did.
What I found to be the most impressive in The Shadow of What Was Lost was the level of details, planning, and complexities that Islington has put carefully into his storytelling, and to think that this is his debut and just the first book of the trilogy! The book did start in a similar way to a lot of other epic fantasy series—especially Wheel of Time—but the story did a corkscrew on me relatively faster, and Islington never lets up from there. “There’s always another secret,” Kelsier from Mistborn said, and this seems to be the advice that Islington took into account the most with his plotting. Throughout my entire time reading this novel, I was constantly guessing and theorizing in my head; Islington made sure that with each new answer revealed, more questions will be raised as a replacement. However, what furthered my enjoyment was how everything felt like a gradual process that never felt overwhelming to read. I seriously didn’t expect the story in The Shadow of What Was Lost would become this complex, but I never felt lost because Islington prioritized learning each new element and revelations through his character’s perspectives rather than telling them in an awkward inner-monologue info dump that has happened in many other fantasy books.
I also loved reading all chapters of the four main POV characters, which I realized have started becoming a rare occurrence the more I read. Usually, when I read a multi-perspective narration epic fantasy, there tend to be one or two POV characters that infuriated or bored me; in the worst-case scenario, some even felt like they didn’t need any POV chapters. That isn’t the case here; Davian, Wirr, Asha, and Caeden are all utterly crucial to the overarching storyline, and I had a blast reading every single one of their development. None of these characters were infuriating to read, and the importance of friendship, trust, and loyalty that Islington put into the main character’s motivations felt genuine and believable. These characters are plunged into deadly conflicts of ever-increasing proportion incredibly fast, and almost all of the characters here are morally grey and more than meet the eye; everyone has their own distinctive background, secrets, and motivations that drove them that I immensely enjoyed reading.
“Everyone has a darker nature, Caeden. Everyone. Good men fear it, and evil men embrace it. Good men are still tempted to do the wrong thing, but they resist those urges.”
It’s ridiculously hard for me to recall a fantasy debut that is as complex, engaging, and accessible as The Shadow of What Was Lost. I could mention The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons which I read in January 2019, and that book certainly doesn’t pale in complexity, but I felt that Lyons’s debut was trying to do too much that it loses the necessary quality of coherence. The details of world-building can be ultra-complex and the scope of lore could be massive but in the end, everything’s pointless if your readers can’t understand what’s going on. Thankfully, exposition is one thing that, in my opinion, Islington did extremely well. As I mentioned earlier, in this book we learned things together with the characters who, at first, also felt lost by the barrage of unfolding events. The in-depth and intricate magic system was brilliantly written; the vast scope of the history of the world was implemented precisely. The Wheel of Time and Sanderson’s influences are very apparent in many aspects of the world-building, but I think that Islington was able to successfully made the world of his series felt refreshing and original.
“You can put your trust in something that’s obvious, that’s measurable or predictable – but that’s not faith. Nor is believing in something that gives you no pause for doubt, no reason or desire to question. Faith is something more than that. By definition, it cannot have proof as its foundation.”
There weren’t any major issues I found during my time of reading this book, as long that you know what to expect, I do think The Shadow of What Was Lost is a book that can be enjoyed by many epic fantasy readers whether they’re newcomers or veterans of the genre. My minor nitpicks would be that there were a few instances where Islington’s writing felt a bit choppy or awkward in the first half of the book. There were also a few phrases that felt repetitive; for example, the distracting phrases “he/she let out a breath he/she hadn’t realized he/she’d been holding” was repeated four or five times throughout the novel. However, miraculously, the quality of Islington’s prose improved significantly in the second half of the book. Islington has a writing style that’s simple, immersive, and super engaging; it reminded me of the best that Jordan has to offer in his Wheel of Time series IF only he would stop emphasizing repetition, smoothing skirt, tugging braid, and sniffing. Seeing the escalating quality of Islington’s prose in this book alone, I’m sure that the next books won’t have the same minor issue I faced in the first half of this book.
The majority of fantasy debuts I’ve read for the past two years—even those that I incredibly loved—have mostly been pretty straightforward in their narrative. The Shadow of What Was Lost offers a multi-layered and intricate world to dive into; most importantly, it is an immersive, accessible, and superbly entertaining classic fantasy written with a modern narrative. I can’t possibly describe how excited I am to be diving into the next two books as soon as I can; I didn’t plan this, but I’ll be binge-reading this series for sure. Too many questions demanding an answer right now, and I doubt I could be able to concentrate on reading something else until I found all the answers. From the first book alone, I already have a very good instinct that The Licanius Trilogy will end up being included in one of my favorite trilogies of all-time list when I’m done reading it, and I shall proceed to test whether my gut feeling will be proven or not.
The Shadow of What Was Lost was easily one of the most impressive debuts in recent years; complex yet well-plotted with incredible worldbuilding and great characters – it marked the beginning of a very promising epic fantasy trilogy.
I first read The Shadow of What Was Lost over 4 years ago when it was still self-published. It came to my attention for two reasons – Michael Kramer narrated the audiobook and more importantly, Brandon Sanderson recommended it. Blurbs were touting how this book will appeal to fans of Robert Jordan and Sanderson. I know that such claims usually needed to be taken with a grain of salt, but I can say that in this instance it was spot on. While I have read and as a whole liked The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, I have to readily admit how much I was aggravated by its bloat and numerous narrative issues. Let’s just say that I’ve even skipped a few books to get to the end, i.e. the last three which Sanderson finished. Even from this very first book of the trilogy, The Shadow of What Was Lost felt like what The Wheel of Time could’ve been minus all those problems.
The influences and inspiration from Jordan and Sanderson were very apparent from this novel, particularly in the worldbuilding and plotting aspects. However, this is not to say that Licanius felt derivative; it is not, at all. In fact, I would even say that it was incredibly well done. Islington clearly knows how to create a world that truly fascinated with its history and lore, and its dual magic system. Even better, he really knows how to handle the exposition well to avoid the dreaded info dump and keep the readers engaged. You’ll have a lot of questions right from the start, and as a reader, you’ll gradually learn as the main characters did as each of them were very soon thrown into dire situations and circumstances. The best part was that the intrigue never stops; as earlier questions were answered, more questions will arise. The complex yet tight plotting was skillfully weaved with mysteries and revelations that just never stopped coming. This made the book into an immensely compulsive read, even though it did not have a lot of action scenes. I blasted through this in two days; reread notwithstanding it is still a pretty big book.
I did not know why I initially found the characters being a bit flat, and I wish to take back that statement. I enjoyed my reread more, and it was mainly because of my emotional investment in the characters. The main characters, Davian, Asha and Wirr, are young adults, and thank goodness, they are refreshingly sensible ones. Maybe after having read so much more in the last few years, I’ve grown to appreciate character work which doesn’t aggravate me with silly dramas and plot devices. A lot of the information about the world’s history and magic system came about through the characters’ perspectives and experiences, which contributed to their development and growth, hence making each character arc distinct, realistic and relatable. Prior to this reread, my favourite character was Caeden primarily because his story was the most intriguing by far, and Taeris whom I found to be a misunderstood and sympathetic character. This time though, I liked each and every one of them, albeit Caeden still retained the top spot for having the most interesting story.
Islington writes in a simple and direct manner, and the earlier part of the novel did feel like a debut with occasional clunky sentences and repetitions. Somewhere around the mid-portion of the book though, the writing started to be noticeably more polished. I hope that this improvement will continue throughout the series, because Islington has a whole lot of story to tell. The ending of The Shadow of What Was Lost was a resounding promise to an even more epic tale to come, and I can’t wait to jump in to the sequel immediately.
I would classify this novel as a classic epic fantasy told in a modern voice. As I grew up reading classic fantasy more than three decades ago, this has always been my favourite subgenre. It always feel like coming home to me when I pick up a fantasy book that harkened back to my earlier reading years, and it reminds me of why I fell in love with the genre in the first place. The Shadow of What Was Lost is one of the best debuts I’ve read that satisfies my yearning for classic epic fantasy stories.
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