The Shadow of the Lion (Heirs of Alexandria Book 1) by M. Lackey, E Flint and D. Freer

Shadow of the Lion

Publisher : Baen Books

Publishing date: February 23rd 2015 (as reported on Amazon for the e-book March 1st   2002 for the hardcover).

I’m often wary of collaborations, but in this case as I was reading I kept forgetting that the book has more than one author, no mean feat, in my opinion.

I picked The Shadow of the Lion from the Baen Free Library, I was intrigued by the premise, a fantasy set in 16th century Venice, and I figured that, it being free, at worst I would just lose a couple of hours before deciding it wasn’t for me (I’m past the phase in my reading life in which I forced myself to finish each and every book I started).

In that couple of hours, or even less, I was hooked. The alternate history is intriguing (also ‘alternate theology’ if you wish, thanks to the conversion of Saint Hypatia), the characters are nuanced and three dimensional, there are as many intriguing and strong females as males, and it manages to completely sidestep one of my biggest turn-offs in fantasy (the ‘big, bad, fanatic church’ and ‘poor, persecuted magic users/pagans’ trope) here there is bad and good on both sides. I loved equally the dottor Marina (a family name here) the strega, and father Eneko Lopez, a Basque former soldier of venture turned priest who, I believe, is the fictional alter ego of Íñigo López Loiola

The plot is complex, many of the major players on the European checkerboard of the time are there (but for France, the rival of the Empire is different in this story, and the Empire itself is headed by the Hohenstaufen, not the Habsburg), it may not be your cup of tea if you don’t like politics in your fantasy but the politics is neatly balanced by the action, in my opinion, and neither feels overdone.
And, most of all, Venice feels real. The one in the book is the city were I studied, with its pride, its history, its special mix of sea and island that sets it apart from any other city in Italy, the strong esprit de corps of the workers at the arsenal, the strenght and world-view of the canalers, the pomp and sense of duty of the best of the aristocracy… I could go on for hours. Venice is a character in the novel, and not a minor one.
This is not to say that the book is perfect, but my problems with it (if that’s even the right word), are definitely minor.
I did a couple of double-takes reading of the Swiss guard of the Doge and of the Scaliger of Verona as an enemy of Venice in 1538 (in this world the Scaligers were thrown out of Verona in 1387 and Verona gave itself to Venice in 1405), but I think it likely that these aren’t mistakes but points of divergence (note to writers of alternate history: please, please put a note on historical matters somewhere in your book spelling out what is intentionally different , this reader, for one, would be grateful) .
All through the narrative there are Italian words for flavor, I’ve no doubt they work fairly well for readers that don’t know Italian, for me… the mis-spelled words were like a constant itch I could not scratch.
Giaccomo for Giacomo, Polestine for Polesine, Caesare for Cesare, Fruili for Friuli, Veneze for Veneziani, capi (a plural word) used also as a singular, in one instance slices of prosecco on a platter (prosecco is a wine, neither cheese nor salame) and why should Kat, a scion of one of the ‘old houses’ of Venice bear the definitely non-Venetian family name Montescue ?
They are all small, silly things, but an Italian beta-reader would have weeded them out, and I believe an already good book would have been made even better by it.
One caveat : I read The Shadow of the Lion on its own merit, some reviews I happened across point out that the novel is a reworking of Lakey’s contribution to Merovingen Nights, a series set in a  shared SF world originally created by C.J.Cherryh, apparently the series was never completed and is now out of print, not having any knowledge of it I cannot weight in either way.
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