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The Council of Shadows by S M Stirling

The Council of Shadows is the second in The Shadowspawn series, following on A Taint in the Blood, by S M Stirling. In general terms, the book is classified and marketed as urban fantasy. This is not unreasonable since the plot is about a superior species of Homo Sapiens that’s been eating us since the dawn of time. So when you walk down the dark city streets, the next vampire or ghoul that starts nibbling on one of your extremities — without your permission, of course — could well be a shadowspawn.

In theory, these are really dangerous creatures. They not only have the usual bloodsucking, shapeshifting predator thing going, but also a whole range of other supernatural abilities ranging from some degree of precognition to low level psychokinetic ability. In other words, if you took each of these skills and attributed them to creatures prefixed by were, or to vampires, witches, warlocks, and those lucky SOBs who win the lottery, you’ve got them all in one package. The reason why we’ve seen signs of these creatures throughout our history is because these hominids have been interbreeding with us through the generations. So while the purebloods are really powerful (because they interbreed), there are a lot of halfbreeds with low levels of the supergenes, who only fitfully display one or more of the attributes.

To add to their general capacity for meanness, they are also blessed with the cat’s habit of enjoying play with the prey. This leads to gratuitous cruelty and torture, both physical and psychological. Fear makes the blood taste sweeter. Since they link at a psychic level, this can trap the prey in a form of living nightmare where the human can experience being chased and eaten repeatedly.

S M Stirling alone at the table with nothing to eat

The leader of the more dangerous faction is Adrienne. Opposing her is her twin brother (and the father of her two children — don’t ask) Adrian. At the end of A Taint in the Blood, Adrian rescues his human lover, Ellen Tarnowski, from Adrienne and, after marrying, they set off on a campaign to stop the Council of Shadows stepping out into the light and taking over the world (again). Unknown to them, Adrienne did not die (these pesky creatures are damned difficult to kill, what!?!) and now lies in recovery, still plotting world domination. The local police are trying to work out what happened when Ellen’s home burned to the ground, and Harvey Ledbetter, another pro-human shadowspawn, plots to wipe out the Council by acquiring a nuclear bomb. Yes, there will be collateral damage, but that’s a price worth paying to save humanity from a tailored outbreak of disease, nuclear explosions in our cities, or EMP blasts to disable all our technology (although preventing the nuclear power stations from melt down might be challenging for the shadowspawn).

Having all that out on display should set us up for an exciting ride as our love birds come under attack and Harvey moves inexorably closer to getting his bomb in place. Except the book lacks any real kind of tension. Apart from the odd nightmare, Ellen is untouched by trauma. She’s just emerged from being under Adrienne’s claws for six months and now she’s enjoying sex on her honeymoon in Italy. While full-blown PTSD might slow us down a little too much, some adverse reaction to the torture would offer us some credibility. As it is, we’re obliged to read through pages of fairly wooden dialogue between the newlyweds as they slowly unwind and then move off to Paris to recruit a scientist to investigate shadowspawn powers. Although there’s mild fighting in Paris, we’re then immediately pitched back into the spycraft undercover work to discuss which culling method to prefer against us quick-breeding humans. It’s all so faux-civilised as the food comes in gourmet style, accompanied by the very best wines.

This leads me to a more general reservation about the way in which the narrative is developed. Initially, I said this book was classified as urban fantasy. If you look at the jack artwork and read the blurb, this will reinforce the impression. Given the state of the market, this is a not unreasonable way to sell a book these days. But the reality is rather different. Although we’re dealing with beings who exhibit supernatural powers, a major talking point throughout is the science of it all. Yes, friends. It’s what we’ve all been dreading as urban fantasy meets science fiction. Our happy couple recruit one scientist and team him up with another from the first episode. Together, they begin a major scientific exploration of the “power” in an underground lab. This leads to very jarring changes of pace. There are some heavy-going passages of speculation and observation where we’re supposed to be interested in how our spawn interface with the power. These are seeded through the fantasy bits where different individuals fight or snack on the local human wildlife. For me, this rather destroys the tension. If we’re reading a horror-oriented fantasy, we meet the heroes and learn to love them, then follow on through an escalating roller-coaster ride of threats until they emerge relatively unscathed at the end. If it’s a science fiction novel, we also have heroes to care about as they come under threat and use their scientific knowledge to survive. But I’m thinking S M Stirling couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to write, so produced a primary set of fantasy elements, with second-tier characters to do the scientific work. Instead of these elements reinforcing into each other, they clash in style and tone. Worse, we also have a human police investigation that makes little progress as a third-tier narrative element.

I’m not saying The Council of Shadows is really bad, but it’s a series of unhappy authorial compromises that left me feeling uninvolved and, at times, rather bored. With a better focus, the creative work invested in this world could have produced far better results. Indeed, it does build to quite an interesting point as the cliffhanger to take us through to volume three but, by then, it’s all too little too late. If you enjoyed the first, then this develops the story in a reasonably interesting way and you’ll probably like this one too. Otherwise, you’ll need a stiff drink before starting and keep it topped up to carry you through to the end.

Jack artwork by Chris McGrath.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
Shadows of the Falling Night
The Tears of the Sun.

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