Sometimes you come across a fantasy magic system that’s just so strange you have to give it a try, especially if you’re me. I like the unique and the unexplored. Give me something fresh and interesting to tickle my jaded entertainment bone. I’ve read enough monomyths and epic quests. I want to read something new.
On the surface, Robin Wayne Bailey’s Shadowdance seemed like it would be just the thing I might enjoy: a bisexual, crippled hero saves the day with dance magic in a Bronze Age Grecian-like world. Perfect! Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to all the promise in the premise. It didn’t take long for the excessive navel-gazing to give me flashbacks to Magic’s Pawn. Clumsy writing, inane details, gaping narrative holes, and a confused plot really didn’t help.
It’s tough to say who is more immature, self-absorbed and flamboyantly magical – Innowen or Vanyel?
The book is about a young man named Innowen who has been crippled from birth. In a desperate attempt to save the life of his guardian, he meets and entreats a witch for her aid. She grants it, and as a throw in, gives him the use of his legs through a dark invocation to her god. Lord Minarik who is in pursuit of the witch as the prime suspect in the death of the king finds Innowen later that night. Seeing that the naked, muddy peasant boy knows something about the witch, Minarik takes him and his guardian back to his castle. Once there, Minarik insists that they go directly to see the new king for reasons that are entirely technical and add nothing really to the story. Over the next two days Innowen discovers that he can only walk at night, at which time he must dance to keep the use of his legs. However, when dancing before his guardian, the man is overcome with lust and rapes Innowen on the spot, thus revealing the dark power of his dance to unlock the evil desires of those who watch him. His guardian then flees in shame and later Minarik offers to adopt Innowen as his son because why the hell not? Minarik then sends Innowen on a journey to find the witch that they are both apparently madly in love with.
This ends four chapters of prologue.
We next see Innowen five years later as he is riding back into his homeland of Ispor with a handsome foreign prince, Razkili as his
heavily implied lover friend. Ispor is being ravaged by the doom triplets of civil war, drought and famine, but the only feeling this scrapes up in Innowen is a regret that he ever came back to the ‘cursed lands’ at all. Ruefully he trudges back to the capital where he continues to witness the suffering of the people of Ispor and feel nothing. Even Razkili has a moment of ‘dude, wtf is wrong with you?’ but Innowen has made himself prince of his own pity party and doesn’t seem to care until days later when he has this sudden revelation:
Innowen turned a little and leaned against a column. He wore a frown as he folded his arms over his chest and said softly, “We’ve had two lavish meals since we arrived here […] and the servants have kept us well fed on bread and cheese and wine […] But I was thinking of the rest of the people in Parendur and Ispor. What did they have to eat tonight? Did they eat at all?”
This after having spent roughly a week already in Ispor where his primary concerns have been ‘don’t let anyone see me dance’ and ‘oh my gosh, what must people think of me, able bodied at night and crippled in the day?’
This attitude continues through the middle of the book where characters and plot arcs are introduced only so Innowen can continue to blame himself for things. Finally, after having been forced to flee the capital after the witch laid siege to it, he decides to sneak back all on his own (I guess to prove that he’s a ‘real’ man) with the singular goal of seeing the witch. That’s it. He just wants to see her. In another show of clumsy writing, he achieves this goal and gets to spy on her secrets! These aren’t really story altering secrets that Innowen can use to save his friends and family and homeland. They’re soap opera secrets that uncover all the skeletons in everyone’s closet.
No, in the end, Innowen saves the day by dancing for the enemy soldiers, causing them to fall under his spell and dance themselves to distraction and ultimately their deaths. An unknown archer kills the witch and Innowen is given full and complete use of his legs in both day and night. Happy ending!
Unfortunately, I could see the author in almost every facet of the story: the characters and their reactions, the plot and side quests, even in the setting. It made it very difficult to stay in the story when events were forced along in such a contrived way as to continuously bounce me out of it.
Particularly frustrating was the frequent inclusion of random abilities at too convenient times. Someone has a broken arm? Oh, by the way, Innowen learned how to be a healer in his travels. The army needs a good swordsman? Yeah, by the way, Razkili had strict martial training as a prince in his homeland.
If you enjoyed Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn then there’s a good chance you will enjoy Shadowdance as well. Personally, I’m getting tired of reading LGBT fantasy where the gay characters act like fifteen year old girls. There are a few exceptions of course, but overall, my opinion of this sub-genre is pretty low right now.
The next book on my reading list is Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini.