The Light of Burning Shadows (Iron Elves #2), Chris Evans

The second instalment of Evans’ Iron Elves sees him further explore the world he created in the first of the trilogy, taking the story to an entirely different geographical region, and push the concept and use of magic in his setting and plot.

His characters not only grow and evolve as people, but as instruments of the plotline, too, which progresses to a deeper level in this second sitting, paving the way for the third and final instalment—Ashes of a Black Frost—later this year (2011).

Konowa Swift Dragon—formerly banished, then reinstated to lead (under royal supervision) the Iron Elves—has a problem. Several problems, in fact.  With another star on the horizon, and a rising shadow that threatens to destroy the Empire and everything else that stands in its path, the Iron Elves had better get marching.

Forced by circumstance, Konowa adds his father and mother—formerly a shape-changing squirrel, and powerful witch respectively—to the company he must travel with. Insomuch as his father is tolerable, his mother’s constant ‘motherness’ is wearing him to the nerve. As if one controlling female wasn’t enough, his decisions and actions are constantly questioned by the closest thing he’s had to a ‘love interest’ in years, in the shape of another witch—Visyna—whose tongue bites deeper than he’d like to admit.

With two female witches flanking him, it’s little surprise that Konowa could do without the Queen’s reporter, Rallie, still dogging his regiment’s steps. She’s supposedly there to report all that transpires back to Her Majesty, but of course, even the Major knows he needs the mysterious old woman. Her memory about her own past and age is as sketchy as the magically imbued drawings she produces in times of need, and her wisdom and advice might grate, added to the constant tirades from the other two witches, but Rallie’s proven she’s twice as competent as any of Konowa’s “Iron Elves.”

Adding insult to injury, his superior in the regiment he used to head is an adventuring princeling, still focussed more on adding artefacts and knowledge to his collection, than defeating the dark evil spreading across the land. With Prince Tykkin comes a higher station, and having ventured to the very desert lands his original Iron Elves were banished to, Konowa is less than pleased having to play politics. He should be out there, hunting the Shadow Monarch down.

Although that in itself is easier said than done, when Konowa himself still feels her power, senses her call. The acorn his father stole from her mountain has become both a point of power and comfort; with it, he believes he’s able to use the power imbued in him by being born with her mark—his shorn-off black ear tip—but control it, rather than succumb to it.

With the Shadow Monarch’s power spreading, along with her black forest, and with the curse hanging over the regiment’s collective head, time is of the essence to find the original Iron Elves before they fall into the hands of their enemy. The Major knows to hope is futile, yet deep down he hopes once recovered, the elves he used to fight with will rejoin his ranks.

But if Kritton is anything to go by, when they find the elves, they’d probably sooner stick him with a bayonet, than look at him.

A further complication arises within Konowa’s own ranks. Since his brush with death, Ally has been acting strangely, and since their arrival in the desert, stranger yet. Touched deeper by both the curse, and something unexplained, Ally’s power is great. Plagued constantly by the pain in his leg, and warned of an evil in the desert, his mind is not where it should be—it is fading. But to where, even Alwyn doesn’t yet know. With the notion of burning shadows, and white hot pain in his mind, the deeper into the desert they venture, the more restless Ally becomes, until events come to a head, in a more terrifying fashion that anyone could imagine.

As an old evil—as old as the Shadow Monarch herself—is awakened from beneath the sand and monsters of a different sort thwart the regiment’s attempts against the Shadow Monarch, things begin to look bleak. Living as he has been, already somewhat detached from the regiment and the “Ally” he used to be, constantly drawn to the cursed Darkly Departed soldiers, Alwyn undergoes a devastatingly terrible transformation that sees him change forever. The old Alwyn might soon be gone.

Evans’ marching narrative was one of the best parts of A Darkness Forged in Fire, and although The Light of Burning Shadows sees the story move to a different continent, and spends more time travelling by boat than foot at first, the excellently paced narrative remains. The regiment is still “marching” onward, despite being afloat, and then stationary for a time. The relentless pace of the narrative mimics a regiment—constantly moving at a steady, yet determined pace. Obviously this can pose problems when battle descends, as the narrative must either break rhythm, or remain slow and cumbersome during fast-pace skirmishes. This is where Evans’ issue with ‘movement’ in battle likely comes from. Just as in A Darkness Forged in Fire, Evans struggles to convey clarity when describing actions and events during battle; characters don’t move as much as they should, and what actually happens can be confusing to discern. Often during longer battle scenes, re-reading entire paragraphs is necessary to truly understand what is happening. This is especially true of the use of magic.

As we saw in the first of the trilogy, Evans’ use of magic is somewhat unique, in that his antagonist possesses some of her power through a somewhat cancerous forest that spreads across the land. This, mixed with the new magic Evans introduces in the desert, married with Rallie, Visyna’s and his mother’s magic, becomes somewhat messy and strained. If all these magics could co-exist clearly and be understood next to one another, there would be no issue. This doesn’t happen; especially when in the thick of battle and more magics than in the final battle of a Dungeons & Dragons game are flying about. The descriptions and clarity of the black forests are not comprehensive enough for Evans to toss the new magic relevant to the desert, as well as all other characters’ magics into the fray.

Why should I read this book?

Because it’s an excellent follow-up to A Darkness Forged in Fire, and is a good step forward in the Iron Elves trilogy. It has its failings, yet none are detrimental enough to simply put the book down and walk away. True enough, this is somewhat of a let-down after the mesmerising start to the trilogy; it’s simply not as good, and the content—in places—crosses a little too close to cliché-land. All of this book’s problems are in the desert. It feels as though Evans’ got a little lost in his own plot, by introducing such a large plot point—another old magic—in the desert, whilst the regiment is merely searching for the previous Iron Elves. Understanding that the Iron Elves is to be a trilogy, and having read the synopsis for the third book—which seems to completely brush aside events of book two, retaining only what happens with Alwyn—it’s difficult to praise The Light of Burning Shadows as part of the series. The plot, issues and events in book one set the tone and the world, as well as the tone of things to come; for Evans’ to seemingly stray so far from the initial point of the trilogy seems a little distressing. Most of what made A Darkness Forged in Fire an excellent read, is missing here, replaced instead by clichéd monsters and a climax that—if not for the appearance of a dragonlike thing—would be better placed in The Mummy films. It just didn’t work for me.

That said, I did enjoy the book: the characters keep the reader there. Konowa, with all his imperfections and inner and outer conflicts keeps the reader glued to the page, wondering how he’ll overcome the Shadow Monarch. The regiment as a whole, with its unique and interesting characters, keeps the reader wondering what will happen to them, the cursed regiment. Characters and characterisation keeps the reader interested, and the very last page of the book does more to keep the reader glued to the trilogy than any other point of the book, rectifying some of the ‘damage’ done by the lack of clarity and awkward last battle.

Not fantastic, but perhaps a necessary step in the trilogy. The third, and final book, should invariably be much better.

3.5/5

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