Book Review: Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire
Some of you know I've been following (and entered) this year's SPFBO competition, which seeks to highlight some amazing self-published fantasy novels. I've been working my way through some of the finalists and this was one that really caught my eye after reading the blurb and hearing it described by a few other people. The premise is that our protagonist, a second-rate mage named Nik, gets into some serious trouble when he agrees to help his thief best friend steal from one of the most powerful mages in the city. Things go wrong and Nik and his friend find themselves accused of murder, and it's up to Nik to figure out what's really going on in order to save his friend's life. So basically, it's good old mystery novel, but with magic. And ghosts. And a main character who really, really just cannot catch a break.
The first thing that really stands out about this story is the tone and the writing style. We experience the story through Nik's first-person point of view, and he has a very distinct and strong character voice. He's snarky and sarcastic and has a self-deprecating sense of humor that seeps through the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed following him from one mishap to another. He's constantly running into trouble (or making it for himself), and that makes the story feel fast-paced and the danger ever-present. Despite that, the story really does have an almost light-hearted tone, and I found myself laughing out loud on multiple occassions.
The other characters are great, too. While the focus is definitely on Nik himself, we also get to meet some other very intriguing characters. There's his best friend Benny, a reckless thief whose morals aren't exactly aligned with Nik's, but they've been best friends since childhood, so there's history and loyalty between them. Their interactions are very fun to read in the story and I'd love to see more of them together in future books. We also meet Benny's daughter Sereh, who's eleven years old and terrifyingly competent at sneaking, spying, and killing. Ash guardswoman Meroi Gale was another favorite of mine and someone I really really hope to see more of in the next book.
The magic and worldbuilding were also interesting and well-developed in a way that added to my immersion in the story. The entire book takes place in a single city, and you get to explore all of its nooks and crannies so that it feels very much like a character itself. Nik's descriptions of the city and his movements within it always feel very believable. He comes from poverty and has little social standing, which means he's very aware and observant of the social structures that disadvantage the poor while also affording those with wealth and higher social standing a much greater level of privilege. It's often reflective of what we see in our own world, and I appreciated the way the author drew attention to those things and wove them into the story's worldbuilding naturally. The social worker in me is endlessly intrigued by seeing such explorations of social systems in fictional worlds, and the ways they impact characters lives. Samphire does a great job of exploring those themes here without ever making the story feel "preachy."
I really enjoyed how the author tied all of the different pieces of the story together in the end. It was fun to try to piece the mystery together with Nik along the way, and I would definitely enjoy reading other books in this series in the future. This was my favorite SPFBO6 read so far. If you're looking for a fun fantasy adventure with mystery and humor, you'll definitely want to pick up Shadow of a Dead God.