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Book Review: Cast In Shadow by Michelle Sagara

I fell in love with the Chronicles of Elantra on a cold winter night near the end of 2007. The world and characters pulled me in from the first page of Cast in Shadow and just wouldn’t let go – which is how I wound up reading until 2am the next morning.

The Chronicles are a police procedural series that follows Private Kaylin Neya, a human officer who belongs to one of the three arms of the Law in the city of Elantra, and whose ability for attracting mystery and trouble is only equaled by the unpredictability of her mysterious powers: powers she never wanted and doesn’t fully understand.

Seven years prior to the events of Cast in Shadow, a very young Kaylin fled the deadly streets of the fief of Nightshade because something was killing children. This was not uncommon. People of all ages die daily in Nightshade, yet these deaths were unusual. Each of the dead children was found with strange marks on tattooed their skin – marks that weren’t there before they died. These same strange marks mysteriously appeared on Kaylin’s skin during a very cold night in midwinter, and all hell broke loose soon after. Eventually Kaylin made her way across the river that separates the fiefs from the Emperor’s City and found a place for herself there.

Elantra is the only known city in an Empire ruled by a Dragonlord, and home to five distinct races besides the usual humans. The series is told from Kaylin’s point of view and from the first moment I knew was going to like her: she’s a night owl and her boss has called to growl at her because she’s late to work. The book’s opening therefore feels very familiar: Kaylin is an average Jane in a rush to get out the door in the morning. She has to sort through the piles of clothes on the floor in order to figure out what’s clean enough to wear, since she hasn’t had time to do laundry lately. She’s also in too much of a hurry to grab breakfast – which is a good thing since her pantry is empty – partly because of her habit of betting but mostly because she doesn’t get paid very much. Fortunately for her, Kaylin’s not in so much of a hurry that she forgets to strap on her daggers before heading out the door.

Half a moment. I forgot to mention that Kaylin’s wake-up call comes via mirror. In the world of Elantra, a mirror is not just a pretty object used to check your appearance. It also functions as a one-stop piece of technology, one of the few that this world has. Mirrors are used to display information like maps, dossiers, and recorded images; they also function as communication devices. Forget your cell phone, a mirror is much cooler. You can tell your voice-or-touch-activated mirror whom you want to call and whether you want them to see your face or not, and if the person you’re trying to reach doesn’t answer your “call” you can leave them a message.

Waiting for her behind his vast wooden desk is Marcus, the Leontine captain of the Hawks, and the only member of his race to serve among the forces of the Law, for reasons which are explored in a later book. His habit of leaving large claw marks in his desk when he is pissed off or stressed is often triggered by Kaylin, whom Marcus sees as one of his own cubs for reasons that aren’t clear at the beginning of the book. Kaylin recalls that Marcus is supposed to have eaten a few people who got in his way during the years before she came on the force, but she’s never actually seen him do it. Still, it doesn’t hurt to grovel when needed, but Marcus doesn’t have time to give Kaylin a serious dressing-down; his superior is waiting to speak with Kaylin in the Tower.

Getting into the Tower means having to deal with magic; it turns out Kaylin doesn’t like magic much. Okay, at all. Most other people around Kaylin seem to accept as a matter of course the need to get the approval of a magical door ward before entering a high security room; Kaylin grits her teeth to get through the simple act of putting her hand on the ward.

Inside the room are two men. One is obviously an Aerian; he is tall and has a pair of very large wings sprouting from his shoulders; the other is shorter with dark hair and no wings – and it is this wingless man that Kaylin attacks. We quickly discover that the winged man is the Hawklord, and while it is clear that he and Kaylin have a long and familiar history with one another, he is also not impressed with Kaylin’s temper; he has bigger fish to fry. After forcing Kaylin and the stranger apart, the Hawklord informs Kaylin that the strange deaths have started again in the fiefs of Nightshade, and only in Nightshade. Kaylin is the only one on the force with intimate knowledge of those streets, and the mysterious second man in the room is the Hawklord’s choice to partner Kaylin in a hunt for the killer.

In her search for the killer, Kaylin must also work with Tiamaris, the youngest of the few Dragon Lords left in Elantra (also said to be the only one with a sense of humor); Lord Nightshade, the outcaste Barrani Lord of the fief whose streets bear his name and whom Kaylin grew up fearing, and Teela, one of Kaylin’s two Barrani friends and her previous beat partner.

The Barrani are a fascinating race; both men and women are tall, with dark hair that never seems to be tangled (unlike Kaylin’s), they are strong, fast and graceful, and their pride is deadly. Oh yes, they are also immortal. If you piss one off, they have forever to hold a grudge, and will. Somehow Kaylin, who failed all of her racial relations classes, has managed to stay friends with both Teela and her on-again-off-again partner Tain without angering either of them in eight years.

As the case unfolds, we learn the reason for Kaylin’s terror of the fifth race. The Tha’alani have the ability to explore and recover the memories of any race by touching them with long, slender stalks that grow out of their foreheads. Unlike Kaylin, I loved meeting the Tha’alani woman Y’belline, whose warm smile and calm voice can light up a room and calm a frightened child – even if she does have stalks growing out of her forehead.

Although she now lives on the other side of the Ablayne, Kaylin is still very aware that the city is surrounded by seven fiefs whose mysterious lords operate outside the Emperor’s laws. With no way to enforce the Dragon Emperor’s laws in the fiefs, the Lords of Law rarely send any but their Shadow forces into those crime-ridden streets. Now Kaylin’s secret past forces her to return to Nightshade and uncover the real reasons for her sudden flight so many years ago. In the process Kaylin must rely on old connections with two men whom she would rather kill than deal with in order find out why the marks are appearing on dead children again.

There are several excellent surprises along the way: each new discovery sets up the next with perfect timing. I loved rooting for Kaylin to remember everything she knows about herself and use it wisely in the showdown at the end. This is a series that reminds me of what it means to be human; if we are willing to know and fully face each part of what makes us who we are, it is possible to begin the process of coming to peace with ourselves.

In Cast in Shadows, Kaylin is confronted with the need to discover the truth about her past – both the dark and the light. In the next book, Cast in Courtlight, Kaylin begins to see that without her past, there is no hope for the future of the Barrani race – and perhaps all of Elantra.

You can learn more about Cast in Shadow and Sagara’s other works from her website, and you can read the first chapter of Cast in Shadow


One Comment

  1. Jessica Greenlee

    Looks like another book (or books) to add to my to-read list, like it isn’t long enough already! 🙂

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