S.M. Stirling Takes on Urban Fantasy: A Review of The Council of Shadows

Back when there were bookstores, The Council of Shadows by S.M. Stirling is exactly the kind of book I would have picked up. It has a gorgeously gritty cover by one of my favorite artists (Chris McGrath), it’s categorized as urban fantasy, and it’s description included the words “shadowspawn,” “brotherhood,” and “apocalypse.” So why didn’t I like it more?

It starts out well enough, with an intriguing world secretly populated with Shadowspawn, “an ancient subspecies of Homo sapiens who formed the basis of legends about vampires and werewolves and have been secretly controlling the world for most of the 20th century.” When The Council of Shadows begins, the ruling Shadowspawn have grown weary of hiding and are ready to take their rightful place at the top of the food chain by culling the human population down to a more controllable size. Fortunately for humanity, not all of the Shadowspawn are as keen on the idea of mass murder. There’s the Brotherhood, who are a group of vampire hunters, and the protagonist Adrian Brézé, a former Brotherhood member and a Shadowspawn himself who has turned against his own kind.

Worldbuilding is vitally important in this genre, and Stirling has set up a good one, but it came at the expense of character development, plot, and pacing, all of which fell pretty flat.

The characters—and there were scads of them, so many that I often lost track of who was who when each new chapter was told from a different point of view—were about as interesting as a box of hair. Adrian and his new wife Ellen are the main characters, but neither one of them was strong enough to carry this book. They lacked chemistry, compelling dialogue, and in the case of Ellen, were completely unbelievable.

Ellen had been kept a prisoner for half a year in the previous book by Adrian’s psychopathic twin sister, Adrienne. Along with the other “lucies and renfields” as they call themselves, Ellen was brutalized in every sense of the word, and yet in The Council of Shadows, she has the occasional nightmare, but otherwise seems unfazed by her ordeal. She even makes a playful joke or two, including a sexual advance toward her husband when he has to physically morph into Adrienne’s appearance at one point.

Adrienne herself is plenty repugnant as the villain, more so, I understand, in A Taint in the Blood (one reviewer on GoodReads described it as being “full of crap dialog and weird rape fantasies”) than in The Council of Shadows. As a Shadowspawn, Adrienne shares the mentality that humans are nothing more than walking meat bags. And the more terrified they are, the better they taste. There are a couple deeply disturbing scenes where she explains this to her two children (the incestuous product of a trick she played on her brother). Keeping with vampire cliché, sex and torture go hand in hand for Adrienne, whose sexual proclivities make the Marquis de Sade look like Barney. Fortunately, we only get semi vague references to her activities, but it was enough to turn my stomach on several occasions.

And unfortunately, it wasn’t just the characters who failed for me. While Adrian and Ellen were hurrying to prevent the council from decimating humanity (and by hurrying, I mean a slow, meandering pace that almost put me to sleep on several occasions), there were a number of tedious chapters that involved a police investigation into the disappearance and presumed murder of Ellen. I cannot express how unfun it was to read about the detectives stumbling onto and speculating ad nauseum about clues when, as a reader, I knew exactly what had happened from the first chapter. Seriously, why were those chapters even there? Dozens of POV switches later, I still couldn’t tell you.

I’ve heard good things about S.M. Stirling’s various fantasy series, but if this is indicative of what he can do with the urban fantasy genre, I wouldn’t advise pursuing it.

You can read the first 8 chapters of The Council of Shadows online, and the first Shadowspawn book, A Taint in the Blood, is available now. There will be a short story called “Pain and Suffering” in the anthology Down These Strange Streets, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois released on October 4, 2011. The next full length Shadowspawn novel will be released sometime in 2012.


Abigail Johnson manages the Tor.com Urban Fantasy Facebook and Twitter accounts and spends way too much time thinking about vampires, werewolves, zombies and all things paranormal in books, movies, TV and video games.

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