The Shadow Master

The Shadow Master - Craig Cormick

[I got an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. Text is liable to change in parts upon publishing.]


I’ll admit I’m not quite sure yet what to make of this book, so for once, I’m going to make up my mind as I write my review.


The story’s set in an alternate Renaissance setting, in which the Medici and Lorraine families compete within the Walled City for the monopoly on a spice able to keep the plague out. While in other parts of the country, plague-infected people are dying by dozens, those in the city worry more about the political schemes of the two families, carried by the inventions of Galileo and Leonardo. The one controls time through clever devices; the other controls weather and has developed a science of metamorphosis. Amidst the tensions, Lucia Lorraine, the Duke’s daughter, and Lorenzo, apprenticed to Galileo and ward of the Medici, just want to be free to let their young love blossom, all too conscious that it could never happen unless they eloped or found another way.


There are lots of hints to well-known plots and historical events and people here. Renaissance Italy, the great inventors, Shakespeare’s plays (Romeo and Juliet comes to mind, of course, and the Duchess definitely has something of Lady Macbeth to her)… Mostly they’re easy to catch, though missing them would mean missing on some finer aspects of the novel. It didn’t lack a touch of humour either, and I found myself smiling more than once, because it was just the right amount for me, without derailing the story. The part with the cook’s assistant and the pie later delivered made me laugh, for its sheer “what the hell” aspect. The inventions were brilliant, and I liked that this strange science, poised between our own and sorcery, had drawbacks, such as making people grow older, faster, or turning them to stone. No such power should ever be totally free to wield.


The novel’s more plot-driven than character-driven. It worked for me, due to the context, the many winks to history and plays, and the city setting (I much prefer fantasy within enclosed spaces, than “travel fantasy”); on the other hand, a reader won’t find deep psychological profiles here.


I found the writing style efficient, able to carry vivid descriptions—the Walled City felt like a character itself, and I had no problem when it came to imagining it. However, the book could do with a last round of proof reading. There were a few typos and missing words now and then, noticeable enough that I couldn’t help but make a mental note about those. (This being an ARC copy, those typos may be fixed once the official publishing date rolls in.)


While the first part of the story was really entertaining, I thought the second one was a little confusing, in that I was left with more than just a couple of questions about who was who and what exactly happened. If those answers were hidden somewhere, then I’m afraid I missed them. What about the Medici and the Lorraine at the end? Was a new order meant to happen, or not? Who exactly were the Nameless One and the Shadow Master? 

At some point, I had that theory that the Master was part of Lorenzo’s mind only, that he didn’t really exist and was a way for the young man to find his place in the world, but it seems I was wrong. I also wondered if the Nameless One’s wife wasn’t Cosimo’s mother, but no father was ever mentioned, so I guess I was wrong again.

(show spoiler)

I’m not positive I fully “got it”. It may be intentional, in order to leave the readers come up with their own conclusions and interpretations, but in this case, it was a little too vague to my liking.


3 to 3.5 stars, because I liked it no matter what.