ARC received from the author in exchange for an honest review.
The Brightest Shadow by Sarah Lin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Brightest Shadow (Book 1)
Genre: Fantasy, Progression fantasy, Wuxia
Published: 6th March 2020 (self-published)
Eastern-inspired with great classic wuxia elements, The Brightest Shadow is a commendable fantasy entry with impressively thoughtful worldbuilding, and an interesting diverse cast of characters.
I grew up watching a lot of wuxia classics, the most famous being The Legend of the Condor Heroes. Sarah Lin paid homage to these great classics by incorporating cultural and martial arts elements which would feel very familiar to wuxia fans into her new fantasy series, The Brightest Shadow. The worldbuilding in this novel is really impressive and well thought out with multicultural people that although share some common traits are quite distinct from one another. Aside from physical looks, the differences could be demonstrated from the food they eat to the way martial arts are practised. Even the concept of sien (somewhat akin to qi in our world sense) differ from one people to another.
“A person who wants for nothing, who is at peace with themselves, cannot be seduced by simple stories.”
The main plot mainly deals with the enforced occupation of a species from another world called mansthein, sometimes labelled as Deathspawn as told through legends and stories of old. And above all, there is the Legend which spoke of the Hero who will rise and lead the humans in eliminating and driving out the invaders once and for all. Now, this may sound a tad tropey but I can assure you that it is not so simple. The synopsis for the book started with “The arrival of the Hero was worse than anyone could have imagined” and believe me, it’s true. How could that be if the Hero was supposed to liberate the humans from these invaders? The thing is, are these mansthein or so-called Deathspawn, really as bad as they were portrayed to be? On the flipside, the mansthein also had some misconceptions about the humans. Hence, the theme of this book is heavy on the social commentary of ‘the other’. It is no different from how we view other races or people who we deemed as alien to our own.
“One does not have to a bad person to commit acts of cruelty. You have nothing to fear from me, Tani. But I would suggest that you set aside thoughts of whether others are good or bad. You will find the matter less relevant than you might hope.”
In order to fully illustrate the multicultural differences, Lin offered a cast of characters from the diverse races in the world of Breilin. We get four different main character POVs from the humans, and even one from the mansthein – a commander who grew weary of the ongoing conflict and violence between humans and his won. The worldbuilding is so well integrated into each character arc and through their interactions with one another. Each character felt distinct because of their respective cultures and upbringing (or lack thereof) – it comes across seamlessly in their character voices and thoughts. Tani, Slaten and Melal are three of the key characters who are developing their sein, and hence we get a lot of the insights around the myriad use and perception of sien from their training scenes. With the exception of Melal who I found extremely aggravating, all the characters are really likeable – even the badass, foul-mouthed bandit who turned out to have more of a heart that she cared to admit. I did, however, find Tani to be a bit more bland compared to the others.
“Yet another part of him could not help but ask how his grandfather could know his path he had chosen was best when he had only walked one. All of them could only guess at the paths that lay ahead of them before they chose one and abandoned the others.”
With all the worldbuilding and realistic advancement that Lin has to incorporate into the characterisation, this book is a slow burn but satisfyingly so. I also have to say that some of the training sequences seemed quite repetitive, but fortunately there were enough great action scenes to shake things up as the story advances. The narrative is split into 5 distinct parts and the ending of each marked a shift in the plot to take it to the next phase. These shifts are also well spaced out throughout the book, so even though the pacing is generally slow, it is not uneven or choppy.
“Life usually takes one gift when it gives another.”
As I read The Brightest Shadow, I got this unshakable feeling that the author exercised great care in crafting this world and writing its story. Do bear in mind this is a hefty book that has a challenging learning curve with all the new terms and cultures to learn progressively as the story unfolds. As such, I advise having some patience and even the right reading mood when picking this up. I believe it is worth reading if you’re looking for something outside of traditional western fantasy. The Brightest Shadow incorporated the best of classic wuxia elements into an intriguing fantasy read that subverts the tropes of heroes and legends.
The above quotes are taken from an advanced reading copy and may be subject to change.