I was asked by James Calbraith to read and review his debut novel "Shadows of Black Wings". It's the first book in the "Year of the Dragon Series". In terms of plot I can't tell you much (more on that later) but the gist of it comes in two parts: 1.) Bran is a boy fresh out of college and isn't sure what to do with his life. 2.) Conspiracies both mundane and supernatural brew in Yamato while the world outside it seeks entrance.
The book's strongest point is world building. I love world building; I love it when the author takes the time to paint the full picture. It shows attention to detail and a sense that the author put great thought and effort into creating their setting. In "Shadows of Black Wings" every scene and location is painted to perfection. Some books have characters moving in a void but that's never a problem here. I feel as though I could set foot on any location from Llambed Academy in Dracoland (The UK) to the Suwa Shrine in Yamato (Japan). This is not a 2-D painting either. Much exposition goes into the history Bran's homeland, its landscape and the ones he travels to, the local culture vs those nearby, differences between towns and cities, and, most interesting, the magical technology of the setting.
On another note, the languages. There are many languages in this setting and our protagonist, Bran, is not a linguist. Some other author would not bother with them and others would use a 'translation spell' or some other devices in a attempt to include many languages but avoid a language barrier. Not this author. The fact that Bran does not know the local language is a plot point and receives a chapter worth of attention.
A second strong point is character development. Mr. Calbraith has a knack for quickly developing characters. Just one scene and a name becomes a 3-D flesh and blood person. On TVtropes we call this "Establishing Character Moment" and it serves him well. My personal favorite is Nagomi's for being the most poignant and indulging in bait and switch to make me think she was something she was not. This added greater depth to her character right off the bat.
Another point in the characters' favor is that they dominant the plot. Every choice a character makes influences what happens to them and to others. One of my two biggest pet peeves concerning plots is the danger of them derailing characters to make themselves work. That's not a problem here.
The weakest point is the plot. As the saying goes, ' a stool stands on three legs' and the third leg of this stool is shaky. The premise states the focus is in Yamato yet it takes Bran 2/3 of the book just to reach the island.If Mr. Calbraith wanted to spend the book creating a world and characters, that's fine. I would have enjoyed that. However, there is a plot. He simply spends the whole book getting to it. Its a pretense of a plot that prevents from truly appreciating the setting.
I keep thinking 'is the plot starting now?' There are many plot threads that are brought up and then never appear again. At one point, a man in Yamato schemes in the manner of a Big Bad. At another Bran fights a dragon zombie. Wars his homeland is fighting are mentioned. None of them are developed. They do wonders for the flavor of the setting but nothing for the plot.
More importantly, failure to conclude the book's conflict is, in my opinion, the worst thing an author can do short of plot tumors. Yes, it is part of a series but there should be some kind of closure for the conflict exclusive to this book. This ending makes me think Mr. Calbraith cut the manuscript in half and published the first half as book one. Without a plot, the entire book becomes nothing more than world building and character introduction; a twinkie without the cream. Instead of resolving conflict its the opposite. Conflict is only just beginning in the final pages. Thia turns me off from reading the second book because I suspect the ending was crafted this way solely for the 'left hanging' factor. In other words, a way to prod readers into buying the next book.
I like the characters and the world they live in but the conflict truly begins at the end and so the book itself feels more like a travel narrative than a novel. I am interested in reading the second book but, because of the ending, its not high on my to-do list.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Shadow of Black Wings" a C+.
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