Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire is a finalist in this year’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO #6). Part fantasy, part crime fiction, it follows the adventures of Mennik Thorn, a freelance mage working odds jobs who finds himself the prime suspect at the centre of a series of magical murders after a botched robbery. When I picked up this novel I was admittedly expecting a sombre story about a tragic character involved in a grisly murder in a cruel city. A fantasy noir of sorts. It does have these elements but Shadow of a Dead God has so much more going for it, including an excellent magic system, great characterisation and plenty of humour.
‘If I had known that within five hours I would be arrested for murder, I would have stayed in the pantry.’
When we first meet our protagonist, Nik, he is sweating it out in a kitchen cupboard waiting for a pair of ghosts to appear, questioning his life choices. I immediately warmed to Nik and became invested in his story. He is witty, sarcastic, and often borders between being humble and self-deprecating. He isn’t the most powerful of mages but uses his limited talent in intelligent ways. He is not always the most reliable narrator either, and has a habit of keeping information from the reader until it is convenient to the plot. This was a little jarring at times, but generally I didn’t mind and just went with it. The most admirable thing about Nik is his unwavering loyalty. He will go to the most extreme lengths in order to protect his friend(s). Which leads to Benyon Field.
‘Benyon Field was sprawled out on my couch like a weasel that had lain dead in the sun for too long…’
Ah Benny, what an absolute class act. A thief indifferent to money, preferring favours over payouts, he is Nik’s best (and only) friend, and the catalyst for Nik’s actions throughout the course of the book. Early on, he asks Nik to help him with a robbery which unequivocally fails and leads to him ending up on Agatos’ version of death row. Nik spends a large part of the story working against the clock to save Benny, and the extreme lengths he goes to in order to achieve this shows how important their friendship is. They are more than friends; they are blood brothers. Family. And the banter between them is pure comedy gold. Which leads to Sereh.
‘Being around Sereh always felt like tiptoeing through broken glass. If broken glass could leap up off the floor and stab you through the eye before you could blink.’
Sereh is Benny’s daughter and a child prodigy with 100 sneak. Initially, I found her cringey, even a little unbelievable, which I know sounds ludicrous considering this is the fantasy genre. It is more to do with how she is introduced than her actual character. My feelings towards her gradually changed especially after one particular heart-warming scene which reveals that she isn’t quite the cold-hearted killer she appears to be. She is also a little like Nik in that she is deeply loyal to her father and will stab the entire world to rescue him.
There are other characters worth mentioning, including the surprisingly reasonable Captain Meroi Gale of the Ash Guard (more on them later) who Nik finds himself completely infatuated by; Dumonoc, the ‘politest’ barkeep in the genre; and Mica, an ambitious mage and rising power, who happens to be Nik’s half-sister. There are also Agatos’ major players – Carnelian Silkstar, the Countess and the Wren – whose behind-the-scenes motives often impede Nik in his investigations.
Alongside a great cast of characters is a fully realised and fascinating world. The entire story takes place in the ancient city of Agatos, a multi-cultural urban jungle that feels lived in, and which Samphire breathes more and more life into throughout the story. Unfortunately, this often came in the form of large info dumps that I felt an urge to skim through, especially when they appeared at the beginning of chapters. Also, the lack of a map feels like a missed opportunity. Not only would it be awesome to see Agatos drawn in all its glory, but it would be a great way to keep track of the various locations Nik visits in his investigations and add a further layer of involvement for readers. (Please note that this last point does not impact the review score)
‘We were earthworms, dung beetles, tiny, unnamed, crawling, squirming microscopic organisms of the godly soil. We didn’t have magic of our own. We fed off the decaying effluent of dead gods.’
Another strong feature of the novel is the magic system. In Samphire’s world, magic relies on three things: ‘the availability of raw magic, our ability to shape it, and the amount of power we could handle’. Every mage is different, not just in terms of power levels but also in how they perceive and sense magic. Some smell it, others, like Nik, see it in colours. One common denominator is that magic is like a muscle which can tire from overuse. There are consequences. Depending on how much magic a mage wields at any one time, they will experience anything ranging from a migraine to the worst gods-forsaken hangover imaginable, which can leave them extremely vulnerable in certain situations. And Nik gets himself into quite a few of these situations. The magic system is further balanced out by the Ash Guard, who are pretty much the anti-magic police. Their name comes from wearing the ashes of a long dead god whose ability to neutralise magic made him anathema to all the other gods. As such, his ashes can nullify even the most powerful mages and serve as a deterrent to preventing a mage-packed city descending into absolute anarchy.
On one final note, I did have two major issues with Shadow of a Dead God that are best discussed together. The villain and the ending. Sadly, the revelation of the true culprit behind the murders lacked the shock value I was hoping for and felt anti-climactic. Furthermore, once the villain is finally revealed, they are dealt with within the space of a single chapter. Following this, the story ends abruptly and there is a lot less closure than I hoped. It feels rushed and left me disappointed, especially when I had become so invested in Nik’s story, and I admit it did slightly sour my overall enjoyment.
Overall, Shadow of a Dead God is a very good book. Aside from my issues with the villain, ending and info-dumps, there is a lot to love here, including great humour, brilliant characterisation and an excellent magic system.
Booknest’s official score for Shadow of a Dead God is 8/10.