Ari Marmell has been writing freelance for years, including short stories, co-authored shared-world fiction, and RPG manuals for Wizards of the Coast. THE CONQUEROR'S SHADOW is his first solo novel, and he attempts to shake things up, with a twist on the standard sword and sorcery.
Corvis Rebaine is happily married to a loving and clever wife, Tyannon. He's got two rascally kids. He's living a simple life among small-town villagers. Everything's all peachy keen.
But his sordid past catches up to him when bandits attempt to assault his daughter. However, this is no random attack, its very deliberateness to bring Corvis out of hiding, because he has something everyone would kill to get.
You see, almost twenty years ago Corvis built himself an army of witches, humans, ogres, goblins, et al, with the purpose of conquering Imphallion. But in order to actually succeed he needed a book of spells, hidden deep within the catacombs of one of Imphallion's largest cities. He assaults the city, barely able to hold it while his enemies gather to dig him out, his entire plan hinging on finding that book and using it to conquer Imphallion for good. He finds the book...but he can't use it. All his plans turn to ruin, so he takes a hostage, young noblewoman Tyannon (yep, the one he eventually marries), and escapes, only to abandon his army and any dreams of conquest.
Now, nearly twenty years later, a copycat warlord is tracing Corvis' steps, using his old plans to start a new campaign of destruction, and find the spell book for his own use. So Corvis does the only thing a former evil warlord can do when someone steals his plans and threatens his family: remake his own army and fight back.
The best thing CONQUEROR has going for it is its serious-goofy-dark sense of humor. In fact, this story wouldn't have worked without it. Why? Because no reader would ever believe that Corvis, the Terror of the East, who strung up bodies in his conquered cities, and laid waste to the countryside, would eventually become a sentimental family man. It defies all rational characterization. The entire plot is crazily contrived. Yet the humor allows readers to suspend belief--for the story anyway, characterization is something else, altogether.
CONQUEROR boasts a big cast, but it revolves around the main three: Corvis Rebaine, former warlord, now husband/father trying to protect his own; Davro, ogre, former lieutenant in Corvis' army; and Seilloah, witch. Marmell paints these stock characters with a few goofy twists and even goofier banter. In fact the dialogue between the main characters is often worthy of an eye-roll. Perhaps it's the humorous take on these supposed dark characters that makes them less believable. Perhaps it's the RPG quality to the set-up. Whatever the case, the result was that I wanted to like Corvis, but never really understood his motivations and behavior. It's a nice idea that he repents of his ways and ends up with a happy family life, but it was hard for me to take seriously considering the circumstances. It doesn't help either that I don't believe Tynannon's behavior. I mean, really, the guy marries the girl he kidnaps and Tynannon never contacts the brother she saved from death? Whose life hung in the balance in the first place because of Corvis? Perhaps they deserve each other. Davro's constant griping was like a violin with one string, his characterization about as deep. Seilloah...I still don't know what I was supposed to think of her.
Marmell tries to help us catch up on the history with brief chapter openers that show us scenes from the past--they aren't chronological, but still relevant to chapter events. Between those and the exciting prologue, it's almost too much information too early in the novel. The PoV switches between several characters, frequently within a scene or to a random character who's never used a second time. Marmell also jumps from scene to scene to keep the pacing quick, but it made the narrative hard to follow when it left out gaps of information and plot. And the ending is a contrived mish-mash of events. All of these problems hurts the forward momentum of the story, which is often rocky. And since I seem incapable of writing a review without a petty complaint, here's mine for this novel: Marmell likes his adjectives/adverbs way too much, which makes for unnecessary wordiness and affects the flow of the prose.
The setting is your standard fantasy landscape, but it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. Marmell's prose carries the plot along well enough, describes the fights without being too flashy, and adds a handful of new ideas to keep readers interested. The magic isn't anything special, it's used inconsistently, and when it is used it's convenient for the plot. This is too bad because the demon-inhabited items could have been more integrated into the story and really added some spice. Also hinted at are the different levels of sorcery ability, which isn't explained in much detail, but at the same time trumped by the special spell book that would allow the use of even 'higher circle' spells independent of ability.
THE CONQUEROR'S SHADOW is fluffy fantasy reading, despite the author's attempts to explore the theme of justifying evil actions for the sake of good intentions. The best audience is probably your teenage son, who won't get stuck on the unbelievability of it, will laugh with the snappy dialogue, and will like the idea of the villain being the 'hero'--plus it's clean enough for parents who like to keep an eye on content.