The publisher Angry Robot has a tendency to publish books that are so strange that they do not fit into any genre or preconceived notion of the boundaries of literature, and The Shadow Master is one of their strangest novels yet.
This book leads the reader on a surreal journey through a world that seems to be an alternate reality version of Renaissance Italy. The plot is an unexpected retelling of the story of Romeo and Juliet, with the two young lovers being Lorenzo of house Medici and Lucia of house Lorraine. As can be expected these two houses are at war, but their methods of combat are far from orthodox. Each house employs a great scientist (one based on Galileo and the other on DaVinci) whose peculiar scientific inventions are much closer to magic, and do not follow any of the physical laws of the world as we know it.
As the Lorraines and Medicis fight in the streets of the Walled City where they live, the rest of the world is ruled by complete chaos. A terrible plague ravages the world, thousands of plague victims gather outside the city gates, and many people say the Walled City is the last place in the world free of the plague’s grasp. With the world on the brink of destruction it is the work of a mysterious man, who never shows his face and seems to meld with shadows, to help guide the hand of fate, and to hopefully save the people of the Walled City from war and pestilence both.
Even though I have done my best to come up with an apt description of this book, my synopsis does not even begin to explain what this book is really about. The Shadow Master is far from a romance novel, so if you are looking for an epic love story I strongly advise you to look elsewhere. Lorenzo and Lucia are very important characters, but there is very little of the book where the two of them are actually in the same place at the same time. At its heart, this book is about fate and the nature of time, which is perhaps why Cormick chose to allude to one of the most famous plays in history that shares these themes.
What I did not expect when I first read the synopsis for this novel was Cormick’s dark sense of humor. This is a story filled with assassins, murders, kidnappings, and both graphic and unsettling visuals. But even in some of the darkest parts of the book I found myself laughing out loud. I guess if I would have to make up a genre for The Shadow Master it would be called acid grimdark.
I absolutely love how this book ends, but I have to warn potential readers that the ending may be a bit confusing. Cormick leaves some elements of the plot up to the reader’s interpretation, and a lot of the hints about what is really happening throughout the book are rather subtle. I thought that the ending was perfect, and it actually left me a bit awestruck, but I have read some other reviews of this book and every single one of them claimed to really dislike the ending. I think that a lot of this was due to people not expecting this book to be so strange, but the absolute bizarreness of this book is part of what made me love it so much.
This book is not for everyone, but I really hope that with this review I can at least convince some of you to give it a try. This is one of the best books that I’ve read this year.
Overall, I would rate this book an 8.5/10.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher in return for an honest review.