Quick Q&A and Summary:
“Star Rating” – I don’t do that on this site. It’s not fair to readers or writers. I could give both Homer’s The Odyssey and Adam’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 5 stars – but that doesn’t mean they are equal, and it’s very possible to enjoy one and hate the other (you will find a star-rating on Amazon from me because Amazon forces me to give it one). Here’s what I will say:
Summary of Book Type
Noelle’s High Fantasy world of Kiriku is a beautiful place inspired by Japanese feudal history and folklore. I believe the world to be enjoyable for all readers of Fantasy, but those who enjoy tales such as Rorouni Kenshin and Naruto will be especially drawn into it. Kiriku, though by no means a clone of the places it draws inspiration from, will appeal to the same audience. I actually could easily see this story being adapted to a manga. Though the only illustration (besides cover art) is a map, there is a high level of visual detail. This is undoubtedly attributable to the author’s artistic background. As my first experience with indie fantasy, I was pleased.
Q: Did I enjoy the book?
Q: Would I recommend the book to others?
A: Yes, but if you plan on ordering a print copy (or if typos frustrate you), I would suggest waiting until September when the author plans on releasing another update to address typos and other small grammatical mistakes.
Basic (Non-Spoiler) Plot
The focus of Shadow’s Hand is on the need to protect the people you love from evil while trying to stay true to a code of ethics. The main characters are “Shadows” (or their superiors, “Phantoms”). Shadows are a warrior class that also handle diplomatic ties with their secret city, Vaiyene (as well as occasionally acting as mediators or offering fighting assistance with other cities). Phantoms for the most part are Shadows with more authority, but they also act as a sort of city-council.
One of the tenets of the Shadow’s Creed (their guiding philosophy), and the one that both main characters (Kilo and Shenrae) feel the most devoted to, is the strong aversion to kill unless it is to save another life. Though not specifically stated in the creed, the only implied acceptable use of lethal force is if a person’s life is in immediate danger and the foe cannot be incapacitated by any other means (pre-emptive striking seems to be a no-go).
However, a new threat upsets the balance of power. Hitori (who holds sway over her people with ruthless cruelty, hostage-taking, and blackmail) has discovered an ancient ability, the Skills, that render traditional combat obsolete. Already guilty of hundreds of murders, she now has her eyes set on Vaiyene, fearing (and not without reason), that the Shadows will learn how to stop her from spreading her influence across Kiriku.
The Shadows must first ensure the survival of those that depend on them, as well as their own, by gaining equal footing in the Skills with Hitori. But it is obvious that the Shadows cannot simply react to Hitori, disabling or killing her in the act. They must be proactive. However, the bigger problem is that Hitori’s force is not just a band of fellow cutthroats, but also unwilling tools. The Shadows must navigate how to fulfill their duty without stooping to the level of their enemy – namely, that of killing innocents caught in the middle, all the while knowing that in trying to do so, not only do they further endanger their own lives, but more innocents that depend on them will suffer and die as well.
Divided into 4 Parts (every chapter in each part comes from a single 1st person POV, but that person changes with each part), the book starts off a little sluggish in an attempt to simultaneously build the world of Kiriku and establish Kilo, relying too much on Kilo’s solitary observations and inner dialog. However, this continually becomes less of an issue as the reader delves deeper into the book. By Part 2, it is a non-issue. On the plus side, the level of visual detail provided allows the reader to vividly see the world of Kiriku right from the start and is interesting enough to hold most reader’s attention until the interplay between characters picks up a bit.
Part 2 strikes a much better balance, with Shenrae’s personality being revealed in her internal reactions to what is going on around her externally (and the visual detail is still present). I actually was a bigger fan of Shenrae by the end of Part 2 than I was Kilo at the end of Part 1. But all that changed in Part 3. Kilo is now regularly interacting with others and becomes a much more compelling lead. The narration also reaches its peak here, with multiple instances of sheer brilliance where I lost my awareness that I was reading a book and became fully immersed in Kilo’s world.
Part 4 slows down a bit again, but still far superior to Part 1. This book is part one of a single-story trilogy: it is not three separate narratives that are interlinked, but rather one, long cohesive narrative spanning three books. However, the author does a good job of letting us see a major breakthrough in the story and has the courtesy to not leave us on an immediate life-or-death cliffhanger. Everyone is still in danger, which will leave you eager for Book 2, but you won’t be suffering from anxiety attacks thanks to a story cutting off right as a villain is about to kill a beloved character.
Being unfamiliar with 1st person POV (I tend to shy away from it, but since I write 3rd person in my fantasy, I chose this to be my first indie fantasy because I knew it couldn’t affect my narration style), there are some things that struck me as odd, but may be common. For example, we see the characters rewording similar thoughts multiple times. But when trying to solve a real problem, this is indeed what we do in our own minds. So, my initial reaction was “redundant”, and then I conceded “true to life”. Still don’t know if we should have seen it that often (and that’s not a veiled criticism, being unfamiliar with 1st person POV, I truly don’t know).
All of that being said, it was a unique experience being limited to one character’s perspective at a time. It opened new potentials for quick twists to come even from allies that are not possible in my normal 3rd person literary world, and Noelle utilized these opportunities well.
Those who love high level of visual detail will enjoy the amount of time and effort Noelle has put into the world of Kiriku. Depending on your personal preference though, it might seem a little too detailed. For example, I loved the chapter of Zenkaiko (named for a location), which is almost nothing but word painting. When it comes to world-building, being a fan of Tolkien, I almost think there is no such thing as too much detail, but some disagree. Fortunately for you all who think Tolkien was long-winded, Noelle’s descriptions of places and people are not as laborious as Tolkien’s. If Tolkien is a classical painter, Noelle is an impressionist. Colorful descriptions that quickly orient the reader, but you don’t need to worry about the artist forcing you to look at and praise every intricate line. Noelle, when it comes to settings, strikes a great balance grounding you firmly in her world while still letting your imagination work out the finest of details.
I did sometimes find her level of detail in combat too much for my taste, but that has a lot more to do with my lack of interest in the finer aspects medieval / feudal combat. Don’t get me wrong, I love swords, axes, and staves – but I know very little about proper technique, nor do I really care to learn it well enough to appreciate how well the author has. Noelle has taken the time to research and learn proper positioning of arms, where the balance on the feet should be, and whether or not particular joints should be locked or bent. While I do want to be able to visualize combat, intricate details such as those listed are lost on me. Not because I don’t understand them (I could clearly visualize what was happening), but because I’m more interested in the drama of the fight than the detail. However, if you as a reader have a deep appreciation for hand-to-hand combat, or want to learn specifics about certain weapons, you may very well enjoy this aspect of the narration.
Though professionally edited, this book did at times suffer from typos, wrong words, and poor sentence structure. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of these errors were minor, and not impacting a reader’s ability to understand what was happening. The author has already released one emergency update to fix most of the egregious ones, with another slated for September.
The two main characters, Kilo and Shenrae, both mature throughout their time spent in the spotlight. Shenrae does so at a consistent pace and is enjoyable throughout. Kilo, however, feels underdeveloped by the end of Part 1, only to rapidly develop throughout Part 3. Within context of the story, this makes sense, but I cannot say too much without giving away spoilers, so I won’t. Shenrae’s development, as is fitting for her age, chiefly focuses on maturing passed a childish timidity and simplistic worldview, whereas Kilo’s focuses on how to maintain his idealism with his growing responsibilities and learning to not cage those he loves in order to protect them, also fitting for where he is in life. Some of the secondary characters do not necessarily “grow” themselves, but we as readers are continually gaining new insights into them, which feels very similar, and are being set up for potential growth throughout the series.
Both Kilo and Shenrae are idealized. Not that they lack any personal weaknesses, but they are both pure of heart. Hitori is evil, with no redeeming qualities revealed thus far. However, this is not the case for all characters. Noelle acknowledges and explores the moral conundrums of those caught between the struggle of Good and Evil. The character Rin embodies this, and the most enjoyable to read (though not my favorite if I was to meet one of them), with other characters in various places along the spectrum.
Kiriku geographically is well-informed, with cities varying in climate and culture, as well as being visually unique. The people, though not as diverse as the landscapes, still contain multiple groups that feel distinct. The arcane (learnable) magic system is intriguing, with no (revealed) theoretical limitations, but a severe natural handicap to the user. However, it is still largely a mystery by the end of the novel (understanding it is a key plot point going forward).
Though not the fantasy novel I would recommend to an elitist academic to persuade of the worthiness of Fantasy (I do not think it has much cross-genre appeal), those who already love the genre will enjoy the read. It might also be a great book to try to get a spouse/friend/older child who loves manga or anime, but thinks reading is “boring” to get into books for the first time. In short, Shadow’s Hand is a fun High Fantasy adventure with a beautifully detailed world that is a great experience for its target audience (including myself).