Review by Simon Brenncke ****

Shadow Masters - Stefan Vucak, author

Shadow Masters, Stefan Vucak, Author

In the third book of the “Shadow Gods” series the startled reader learnt that the universe of the series wasn’t far away or of a parallel reality, but correspondent to our present-day universe. Earth and the Serrll Combine, the conglomerate government of the known universe, intersected. Earth turned out to be just a protectorate within the Serrll Combine. Now, in the fourth book, we see the universe expanding further. An alien race, alien to both Earth and the Serrll Combine, shows up, the Orieli. On top of that, another alien menace still lurks on the horizon.

In this highly charged background of what ultimately must explode in furious power struggles is set the new mission of Terr and Dhar, the protagonists of the series and presently agents of the Diplomatic Branch, the secret service of the Serrll Combine. The agents return from their mission to Earth only to embark on a spy mission with the raider network they already dealt with in the second book. But this time, they are meant to infiltrate the political backers of the raider network, the Alikan Union Party (AUP) and its Provisional Committee seeking to further its influence in the Serrll Combine by illegal means.

I was a great fan of the first three books of the “Shadow Gods” series, and I continue to be a fan of the fourth one, but the experience was different. It was not as exhaustively positive. Perhaps the justice of the comparison must fall short. This book cannot possibly be read as a stand-alone novel, otherwise it would be incomprehensible. By necessity, it is explained by the novels preceding and following it. Inevitably, its quality is also gauged against the background of the other installments. When the other novels are excellent, and this one is very good, it must ultimately appear less than very good, because of the metric of the comparison.

The reading experience was positive all right, but something was missing. What was missing? I tried hard to think of the reasons. Here are my three suppositions – I wouldn’t call them conclusions.

First, many developing storylines of the “Shadow Gods” series are woven into this book. Thus, at times it’s difficult to tell where things are heading, where the focus is and where the attention of the reader should rest. Sadly, the reader won’t only ask himself, “Where is this heading?” but also “Where does this come from?” Because the main plot – or what I identify as the main plot – is a development of the storyline of the second book, which the reader doesn’t remember any more, at least not in its details, but which is constantly made reference to in its details. It would have helped greatly if characters had resumed the basic facts about the past storyline in a conversation, or another means to present the reader with a summary of events and people would have been employed.

The overarching story is getting more complex as the series progresses and demands a highly attentive reader. Every reader who wants to be rewarded with an enjoyable reading experience of well-crafted sci-fi will be up to the challenge, but a little help from the author would have been greatly appreciated and perhaps also made the novel more amenable to a greater public.

Second, the main plot doesn’t play out. I don’t give anything away here – the blurb already tells as much. Terr’s and Dhar’s cover is blown. Their mission objective, to infiltrate the AUP Provisional Committee, is not achieved. Nevertheless, their superior Anabb hails the mission as a success: “Although you haven’t established a link to the AUP Provisional Committee, this is a most satisfactory outcome”. But the successful outcomes he then enumerates were not delivered by Terr and could have already been brought about by the information the Diplomatic Branch possessed before Terr even began his mission.

The mission was useless and aborted halfway, or rather when it just got started – which is already close to the end of the book – and the reader cannot but wonder what all the trouble was about. The abruptness of the turn of events is further highlighted by the fact that it’s a mere coincidence that blows the agents’ cover. “Amazing how life can pivot on a seemingly random moment in time”, a character comments. Amazing indeed.

Well, missions that go awry, that’s realistic storytelling, of course. But I fancy the author must have been uncomfortable himself about suddenly cutting short the mission and before it yielded the desired result, because why else make everyone in power praise a failed mission? The reader shall get the idea that something really happened on that mission, when in fact nothing happened. When the agents’ cover is blown, they only just concluded the first step towards fulfilling the stated mission objective.

In sum, the main plot isn’t well drawn, and the additional elements of other storylines that run parallel to it contribute to its meandering.

Third, having finished the novel, I can’t remember a thrilling scene that held me on the edge of the seat. There were scenes like that in the second book of the series, the prequel to this one in main storyline. Not here. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an enticing novel, but not a page-turner.

One scene that could have been epic is built around a military confrontation between officers of the Serrll and the Orieli. It’s interesting to read, but perhaps I couldn’t be thrilled by it because there was some sort of cognitive dissonance, as I couldn’t understand how someone with such a primitive expression of the drive to prove himself, the commander of the Serrll side, could have got to the position he holds in the first place. And then in the midst of the fight the reader is flooded with tech-talk interrupting the action – and here I found it unduly buffering the tension; the like of: “Energy surged from the two Koyami generators and flooded into focusing coils within the projector dome. The fire control computer synchronized the pulse sequence with the shield grid and a pale yellow 64 TeV beam flashed from the projector dome and lanced toward the Orieli ship …”

As the diverging and inconclusive storylines show – even the main plot being aborted – this is an in-between novel in the series that doesn’t reach the bar set by the structural coherence and storytelling power of the first three installments. Still, it’s a good book and an enjoyable and interesting read. I think the “Shadow Gods” series is an unmissable read for fans of hard sci-fi. It is also an unmissable read for sci-fi fans enjoying world-building with its wide-spinning cultural and political developments. To be clear: this book makes no exception to the series.

This review is posted on Simon Brenncke’s website:

Shadow Masters is available on Amazon.

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