August 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

shadowShadowfire by Tanith Lee


Where The Birthgrave took many tropes of high fantasy fiction and turned them on their head, Shadowfire, on the surface, reads like a standard high-fantasy novel. It has tribes and war, conquests and pillaging, and centers on a very masculine warrior who defines his worth in his strength, skill, and virility. In short, it begins by being the complete opposite of The Birthgrave, a book that revels in its feminism.

Tanith Lee, however, is a better writer than that.

With Shadowfire, Lee runs a bit of a risk starting out telling us the tale of Turek, whom, if we’ve read The Birthgrave, we know is the son of the nameless narrator from that book. In Shadowfire, Turek’s knowledge of his heritage is unknown for a large part of the story, meaning that we know more than Turek for that time. Luckily, Lee uses this knowledge in the reader’s favor, dropping clues in our path as the story progresses while showing us how Turek’s upbringing factors so much into his character.

Turek, being male and part of a tribe, is not nearly as likable a narrator as the one from the previous book. As much as The Birthgrave features a feminist main character, Shadowfire features a character who is a part of the patriarchy, and sees no qualm in how he treats women. They have no stature in his culture, and even Demizdor, his second wife, who hearkens back to the feminist theme of the first book, becomes involved with him out of necessity, not desire. This isn’t a dismissal of her character, though; instead it reinforces the dislike we have toward Turek.

The thing is, Turek grows because of his attachment to this woman, and to the other two women who features predominantly in his life. Each is strong-willed, more of a character than Turek himself, and each is only understood by Turek after they pass from his life. Turek’s character development is dependent on these women, making the story as much about them as it is about him. In turn, the story takes on a theme of men being shaped by the strong women in their lives.

The original title of this book was Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, a rather meaningless title once you’ve finished the book, but Shadowfire, while having more shelf appeal, gives no further meaning into the book itself. The original title is certainly more lurid, but suggests a different feel than the novel turns out to be. Shadowfire is at least ambiguous enough to embody the feminist angle the story takes, but it still doesn’t evoke anything of the story itself.

There’s a parallel of story between Shadowfire and The Birthgrave, in that we have a character who is ignorant of their upbringing and heritage, who takes on different names as the story progresses, and who is treated, by turns, as slave and god, aggressor and healer. Both are worthwhile, not just in story but also in theme, and I’m eager to see how the third book will play on the story Lee established with these two books.

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