A Shadow All Of Light by Fred Chappell (book review).

The stories of Falco the apprentice shadow thief first appeared in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ and I loved them. So when I discovered they had been combined into a novel, I couldn’t get it soon enough or is it a novel that was sold in bits to ‘The Magazine of Fantasy And Science Fiction’? Hard to tell. It reads like a novel, to be fair, with the disparate elements coming together nicely at the end and, as people are more likely to buy novels than story collections, we shall call it a novel.


Falco is a farmer’s son who wants to better himself, so he comes to the port city of Tardocco in the province of Tlemia with the aim of apprenticing himself to Maestro Astolfo of the shadow trade. When we meet Falco, he is in Astolfo’s mansion with Astolfo’s blade at his throat. Fortunately, the master decides to admit him to his household. Falco the farmer is soon engaged in intensive training. He will learn to separate shadows from their casters with the quasilune knife but must also undergo intense instruction in unarmed combat and swordplay from the voiceless servant Mutano, a great hulk of a man who thrashes him easily. His first real job comes up when a merchant named Pecunio contacts Maestro Astolfo with a shadow for sale. The names, city states and level of culture are all similar to Italy in the Renaissance period.

Pecunio asks Astolfo to identify a shadow purporting to be that of the infamous pirate Morbruzzo. Falco is not much help here as he is still learning the trade. In his next adventure, a noble lady has a great jewel which appears to have a shadow in it and her mental health seems affected. On page 40, we learn some of the uses of shadows in this world. They may be used to furnish a pleasant background to a room. Winemakers steep lesser vintages in shadow to add subtlety and depth and they may be used to darken silks and linens slightly. As the novel progresses, there is more about shadows and it becomes clear that Chappell’s fantastical conceit has been well thought out.

By chapter three, some years have passed and Falco has learned enough to take on an assignment of his own. A wealthy rope merchant has twin children, a brother and sister born an hour apart, but has lately noticed that they have only one shadow between them. Sometimes it attaches to one, sometimes to the other. Meanwhile, Mutano, the mute who trains Falco in swordplay, has a scheme to get his voice back from the villain who stole it years before.

Falco, Mutano and Maestro Astolfo are developed as characters over the course of the novel and all of them are changed. The climax is a huge event with the entire city in danger from an enemy without and traitors within. Characters introduced in earlier sections are bought into play and it all ties up very neatly.

If you’re the kind of reader who demands fast-paced stories with lots of action, this might not be for you. The chapters are quite long and demand an attention span greater than that of a gnat. The prose is beautiful but takes its time to tell the story. Fred Chappell has a poet’s vocabulary and love of words but his style also has clarity. Previous poets, who have written fantasy, are sometimes hard work for though the sounds are lovely the meaning is not always clear. I am thinking of Clark Ashton Smith. There are other authors of fantasy who use a low-key understated literary style who can be so boring that one’s eyelids tend to droop. Gene Wolfe, alas, has this effect on me. Two who get the balance about right between style and readability are Peter S. Beagle and Fred Chappell. I would put Chappell ahead by a nose, if that much. If I was reading Beagle this week, I might put him ahead. Either one is a joy.

Readers of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ familiar with the parts printed therein will surely snap up this fine novel but I’d recommend it to any fan of sophisticated fantasy.

Eamonn Murphy

June 2016

(pub: TOR/Forge. 384 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-76537-912-2)

check out website: www.tor-forge.com

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