ARC provided by the publisher—Gollancz—in exchange for an honest review.
The Shadow Casket by Chris Wooding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Darkwater Legacy (Book #2 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Pages: 832 pages (Hardcover edition)
Published: 16th February 2023 by Gollancz
The Shadow Casket is an action-packed sequel full of lovable characters colored by a shade of gray morality and believable motivations.
“Such profound consequences from the smallest actions. As if each was a raindrop falling on a lake, a tiny impact spreading ripples outwards, becoming vast.”
Almost five years have passed since I first read The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding in 2018. Since then, I have often mentioned how much I loved the criminally underrated fantasy novel, and I still do. You might have noticed this if you check my reading history. But ever since I have my own Booktube channel, I never binge-read a series anymore. It is difficult for me to concentrate my focus on one series for a while due to how many books and series I want to read and reread. But having access to The Shadow Casket, I did a reread of The Ember Blade and jumped into The Shadow Casket immediately. I could not resist. The Shadow Casket is one of my most anticipated novels of the year, and it had a lot of high expectations to fulfill. And the majority of the novel succeeded in meeting my high expectations, making this a worthy sequel to The Ember Blade.
“The things we value make us weak, he thought. Or they can make us unstoppable.”
The story in The Shadow Casket starts three years after the end of The Ember Blade. The battle between Ossia and the Krodans continues, and our main characters are on the precipice of a life-changing revolution. But revolution does not come as easily as expected. And to make things worse, Aren cannot find anyone to fully trust. The Shadow Casket is a sequel with themes centered around heroism, friendship, sacrifice, trust, and betrayal. The latter is probably more than the other. I loved these so much. Heroism is a theme explored countless times in fantasy, but Wooding did a wonderful job elaborating upon its meaning in relation to the context of the series and more.
“Heroes were simple. They didn’t trouble themselves with consequences. Those who fell by the wayside in their service were left unmourned, at least in the stories. But the stories never told of the quiet times. When the heroes laid down their heads at night and the memories crept in. The lonely meal by the campfire, recalling the smiling eyes of those now dead. The cost in death and grief, one piled upon the other until it was too much to bear, and the only escape was the sanctuary of purpose. They never spoke of what happened when that purpose was fulfilled, and there was nothing to protect them anymore.”
As I mentioned in my review of The Ember Blade, one of the elements of The Darkwater Legacy series is how Wooding implemented both classic fantasy tropes and the grey morality often encountered in modern grimdark fantasy into the narrative. That is still strongly evident in The Shadow Casket, and I believe readers who enjoyed The Ember Blade will at least have a great time reading this long-awaited sequel to it. Personally speaking, though, I loved the plot structure in The Ember Blade more than The Shadow Casket. The found family, journey, quest, and heist-centered plotlines in The Ember Blade hit me more emotionally, even on re-read. The Shadow Casket took me longer than The Ember Blade to feel completely immersed in. There were several sections in the first half of the novel where my interest did wane. Mainly, these were the plotlines dealing with Fen’s romance subplot and how the story slightly felt like they were repeatedly going around in a circle. I also think the way Fen behaved and acted toward Aren felt unbelievable at times considering everything that happened in The Ember Blade. However, the rewarding pay-off in the second half of this 800 pages novel was undeniable, including Fen’s character development.
‘It’s the journey that makes a hero, Grub. Not the destination. And you and I, we’ve a long way to go yet.’ He smiled gently at his companion. ‘But we’ll travel together. And when they tell our stories, they won’t be able to speak of one without the other.’
I don’t know about you, but if you’re like me and you’ve read and loved The Ember Blade, then we might be in agreement that believable characterization is Wooding’s strongest skill as a writer. In The Shadow Casket, readers are introduced to many new characters. And although none of them were as compelling as the main characters we knew from The Ember Blade, they helped increase the complexity of the conflict. I truly appreciate the way Wooding handles characterizations. As I said, this is not a grimdark fantasy series, but the genuine moral dilemma the protagonists and antagonists constantly encounter was superbly written. In times of war and revolutions, as Aren said, the world endlessly tries to change them into someone they’re not. Someone who needs to cheat and do ruthless things to win. Whether they succumb to cruelty or not, that’s for you to find out. However, betrayal, deception, schemes, and forgiveness are some of the key themes in the narrative.
“Life was too precarious to hold grudges against the ones you loved. You never knew when they’d be gone.”
Other than Aren and his tumultuous relationship with the other characters, I strongly believe Grub is one of the best characters I’ve read. Wooding did such a fine job writing his character. A high level of distinction is given to the character’s voice and actions. Every scene with Grub is a scene I highly enjoyed reading. Funny, intense, and emotional; it felt like Wooding succeeded in hitting various notes of emotions every time Grub appear in a scene. I can repeat this praise when I’m talking about the other main characters, too, but Grub (in my opinion) definitely stole the spotlight. His presence, antics, dilemma, and development are too memorable to ignore.
‘Right now, all the people want is a leader, a warrior: the hero with the bright blade. Hope is simple, and they want hope. But afterwards, after we’ve won– they’ll want to know every piece of it. Then your tale will be told. Grub the Cunning. Grub the Strong. Grub the Brave. And it will be passed from one generation to the next, just like Orica’s song will.’
Lastly, this review will be incomplete if I don’t mention a thing or two about Klyssen. Klyssen is one of the main villains of the series. He has been there since the first book, and we have received a few POV chapters from him in The Ember Blade. In The Shadow Casket, Klyssen has more portion of chapters. And my god, I felt for his characters. I feel like Klyssen, as villainous as he is, is truly the character who could totally be on Aren’s side if only he was born and raised on the side of Ossia. The affection and love Klyssen has for his daughters felt so genuine. And he has a strong unbending sense of justice even though he IS on the opposing side of Aren. I loved reading his POV chapters, and I think Klyssen displayed, once more, why Wooding is so good at writing characters, both protagonists and antagonists.
“The debased actions of a few powerful men didn’t represent an entire nation. Their philosophies, their art and learning, the civilisation they brought– you couldn’t throw out all those wonderful things just because a part of it was rotten.”
Although the last action scenes were not centered on a heist like in The Ember Blade, The Shadow Casket managed to end strongly with a tension-packed climax sequence. It was pretty much, in a different way, still just like how it worked in The Ember Blade. I honestly do not think The Shadow Casket was as magnificent as The Ember Blade. A few minor issues I mentioned aside, the journey and resolution for the quest for The Shadow Casket also did not feel as satisfying (or necessary, but it depends on the third book) as the quest for The Ember Blade. But overall, the 840 pages tome filled with bloody sacrifice, conquest, glory, and incredibly well-realized characters and relationships ensured me that the five years of wait for The Shadow Casket was worthwhile. There is still one book left in The Darkwater Legacy trilogy to read. We might not get it soon, but I will wait for it. Patiently. Until then, my days as one of the champions for The Darkwater Legacy resume.
“History liked to put names to its heroes, but all great endeavours were the sum of many sacrifices, and most went unsung.”
You can order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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