I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest Irish people—at least, ones with a modicum of knowledge of and investment in Irish mythology—are not going to be this novel’s most receptive audience. I know I’m not, and I wonder if I can even perform the feat of empathy necessary to imagine myself in the shoes of people who might receive Game of Shadows with eager appreciation…
It might be something of a stretch.
Let’s start with the basics. Game of Shadows is the debut novel of one Erika Lewis. Lewis has had a career in the television industry spanning two decades, and it shows: In its approach to narrative, characterisation plot, and tension, Game of Shadows reminds me of nothing so much as The Shannara Chronicles television show. Stylistically, it reminds me of Terry Brooks—if Terry Brooks were to swallow a dictionary of Irish mythology and thereafter suffer a small amount of indigestion.
Fourteen-year-old Ethan Makkai has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, under the over-protective eyes of his mother, Caitríona. She’s always insisted he keep his ability to see ghosts hidden. But when she disappears—kidnapped, leaving behind traces of blood—and Ethan is saved from assault by angry ravens by a man who introduces himself as Captain Cornelius Bartlett, Ethan finds himself dragged out from his ordinary workaday life into the land of Tara.* There, he discovers his ability to see ghosts makes him the heir to the throne of Landover, one of Tara’s six kingdoms—and that he’s inherited a family feud with the kings of the neighbouring kingdom of Primland. In particular, an evil sorcerer by the name of Sawney Bean, now imprisoned in a well-guarded cave, has been hatching a plot for both power and revenge for years. Ethan’s mother is central to his plans.
Ethan is determined to rescue his mother. With his older cousin Christian, son of the former king of Landover, and Lily, a young woman skilled at healing and with a sword, he sets out to thwart the plots of Sawney Bean and the shape-shifting Ravens (women who can transform into giant birds)—and, incidentally, find his father, Runyun Cooper, the only man in Landover who knows where Sawney Bean** is imprisoned. The father his mother told Ethan had died.
A series of incidents follow, of which the general ratio seems one part quest to one part soap opera. It’s a wonder that Ethan’s headlong irresponsibility doesn’t get him, or anyone else, killed. Lewis gets peculiar with mythological mixing—draugar and Fomorians, Cat Sidhe and ghost-goddesses—and with descriptions of battle scenes.
Game of Shadows doesn’t know whether it wants to be a modern young adult novel or a mash-up between David Eddings and Piers Anthony. Surely Lewis is being intentionally hilarious in choice of names—Christian Makkai, Cornelius Bartlett, Julius Niles, Sawney Bean—and in the decision to have everyone in the nation of Landover on this “hidden continent” of Tara speak English with an “Irish” accent. I hope, at least, that this is meant to be funny—although it is difficult to tell from the text whether or not the humour is intended.
In most respects, this is a conservative fantasy. Ethan is by virtue of his birth a species of chosen one. Apart from his mother (who needs rescue), the authority figures he encounters are nearly all male. There is no indication that queer relationships exist in the text, and there’s a solid undercurrent of chivalrous sexism in Ethan’s insistence that “you don’t hit girls”—especially when directed at a girl who’s a lot better at the hitting skills than he is.
All things considered, while Game of Shadows is basically competent within the limits of what it sets out to do, it does so very many things that irritate me that I cannot bring myself to feel any positive sentiment towards it. I would rather recommend Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars or Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, which occupy similar spaces on the Venn diagram of fantasy stories to Lewis’s Game of Shadows while being altogether less irritating.
I suspect, though, that fans of The Shannara Chronicles television series will find much to enjoy here.
*From the cover copy: “Thousands of years ago in Ireland, an ancient race fought a world-changing battle—and lost. Their land overrun, the Celtic gods and goddesses fled, while the mythical races and magical druids sailed to an uncharted continent, cloaked so that mankind could never find it. This new homeland was named Tara.”
**Sawney Bean. Every time I type this name, I just… look, “Sawney” used to be a vulgar, rather racist epithet for Scots people, used by the English, and “Sawney Bean” is the name of a cannibal Scotsman, most likely invented wholesale, whose story appears in The Newgate Calendar.
I have great difficulties not making faces.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.