Review: Shadow Prowler

Posted: February 22, 2010 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Alexy Pehov, Epic Fantasy

SHADOW PROWLER (Amazon), by Alexey Pehov, was quite a surprising read for us. All we knew going in was that eight or so years ago it was released in Russia, the translation was done by Bromfield (of Nightwatch translation fame), and that the author had some recognition in his home country.

Just picking up the book gave us confidence in it. The cover art depicts an obvious epic fantasy, and it looked gritty enough to hold our attention. Before we even read the excerpt on the back we were really excited. Especially Nick, since he loves Russian writing (even if it is translated).

However, the excitement we both had for the book dissipated immediately (and more than just a little) when we read the back cover blurb. Nameless One, Ogres, Elves, Quest for “the-relic-that-will-save-the-day”…Uh oh! It’s like Pehov went to great lengths to use every single fantasy trope or cliché in this book. Nevertheless, since we ARE the most important book reviewers that have graced the internet, we moved forward in reading the book.

To say that our newly lowered expectations were shattered would be more than just understatement. This deceptively creative, deep, and unique fantasy book was exactly the treat we hoped it would be. Alexey Pehov certainly earned and deserves the international recognition he has been given.

The story follows one Shadow Harold, a master thief, as he is enlisted for an impossible and suicidal quest to save the world. Enlisted, of course, being a nice term for a choice between the impossible mission and a horrific life in a terrible prison that only ends when he dies. His assignment is to travel to a haunted and trap-laden place called Hrad Spein (an unfathomably enormous palace used by just about every race at some point in history as a burial ground–an idea we dig). With a group of the-best-of-the-best, the mission is to retrieve an item called the Rainbow Horn to keep the Nameless One from overrunning Avendoom.

While the premise is generic–OK, very generic–the writing gives the traditional fantasy tropes a little breath of fresh air, which quickly takes on a life of it’s own. We are treated to a rich, fantastically (pardon the pun) imaginative world, in which all the potentially formulaic, yet wildly inventive fantasy elements, coalesce to form the backbone of a story well worth reading.

The events of SHADOW PROWLER are told through 1st Person narrative from the eyes of the protagonist Harold. Harold is vividly portrayed through deft use of the character’s inner commentary as he tells the story. While it is told in 1st Person, frequently Harold will refer to himself in the third person. Hopefully that is actually a character quirk of Harold’s, and not a mistake in translation, because it is bizarre and unique, but funny.

That somewhat leads us to our first complaint about the book. The vocabulary. There is an abundant use of words that detract from the overall feel of an epic fantasy. Things like dictionary, philistine, “two in the morning”, using our calendar months, etc. There is a lot of anachronistic vocabulary as well. At first it is rather distracting, but eventually serves to add to the charm of the book. Especially Harold’s thoughts and dialog.

There is relatively no downtime in this opening act (this is book one of a trilogy, FYI), as Harold prepares to do the impossible. While the pacing is excellent, there isn’t much of the content in this first book that involves the actual quest. It is a lot of “getting-to-know-you”, preparation for the journey on Harold’s part, and side plots that bring some conflict to the preparation.

If you are looking for a book that delivers the archetypal quest in fantasy, SHADOW PROWLER seems to be the perfect opening act for you.

That isn’t to say there is no action. On the contrary, there is plenty of it and it is done very well.

Moment of truth here. While we enjoyed the book, we know that no new ground was broken here. All the tropes/clichés were left intact with only slight, if any, variations. We know that is enough for many to pass on the book. It almost was for us at first glance. However the book delivers an entertaining experience with a few surprising, and welcome, subtle comments on humanity and society.

If you are looking for a book that delivers the archetypal quest in fantasy, SHADOW PROWLER seems to be the perfect opening act for you. There is a certain way you can think of this. Much like DIVING INTO THE WRECK (which we LOVED) was pretty typical SF, SHADOW PROWLER is pretty typical epic fantasy. You could say the same thing about the THE NAME OF THE WIND. It really didn’t do anything new, it just executed the traditional tropes and ideas exceptionally well. In much the same sense as those two previously mentioned novels, it is the execution and writing style that really pulled us in while reading SHADOW PROWLER. As the saying goes, an author with true skill can take any idea, no matter how typical or cliché, and make it a terrific read. That is what Alexey Pehov does here.

No, it isn’t a perfect novel, but we enjoyed it immensely. Translated Russian novels have a very unique style to them, and in this case, it was refreshing. SHADOW PROWLER is the first book of a series, and there is plenty of time for Pehov to surprise us. This book won’t be for everyone. But if you go into it with the right state-of-mind, you will enjoy this novel, and you will look forward to the next one like we are.

If we could have one wish regarding this series? We wish we would have had this years ago when it was released in Russia. We both are incredibly curious as to what Pehov is working on now that is more current to the recent trends in fantasy.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: We can't remember a single curse word...
  • Violence: There is violence and action, some of it bloody, but none of it graphic or gratuitous
  • Sex: None


  • 13xforever says:

    Did they remove all the cursing? I be de'oured by h'san'kor…

  • jblazier says:

    Good review. I reviewed this for Fantasyliterature, and liked it a lot. I had talked to a few people who hated it, and I had begun to think I might be alone in my liking of this book. Thanks for backing me It was a really fun story. I also totally agree with you on the quirkiness of the verbiage. I chalked it up to an artifact of translation, but I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed it.

    • -Slamel- says:

      Its not the most inventive book, but that doesn't mean it can't be really fun to read. The people I have talked to that hated the book had the wrong expectations it seems. They wanted something groundbreaking and new. Instead it is a very well done generic/classic fantasy. Which is fun enough for my time. Glad you liked it too jblazier.

  • koshr says:

    Why are you guys so fascinated by foreign language stuff.I mean i am a german and most translations just dont hold a candle to the originals and i assume it has to be the same with russian->english.

    • Personally, the reason I like foreign language stuff is because they have a different stylistic approach than, say, some American author. A lot of it depends on the translator, though.

      For example, the reason we knew this book would have a good translation was due to having read novels translated by the same fellow before-Bromfield (he's a big deal. Won awards and stuff). He translated the Nightwatch series. Those books weren't the best ever, but there was a distinctly foreign feel to them that the translator preserved. It's that different feel that I personally enjoy when reading foreign translations.

      And sure, they still might not be as authentic and powerful as they were in the native language, but seriously, who knows more than one language fluently here in the US? This is typically the only exposure we get to foreign authors. I mean, sure, I happen to be fluent in a second language, but I'm a minority in that sense.

      As far as future books in the series go, I was under the impression that they were going to be released annually, but I could be wrong. Nick and I will email the Tor publicist and see if we cant get a concrete answer.

    • -Slamel- says:

      I like the structure and story telling style of Russian authors. Of course, I don't speak Russian, so I am speaking from experience with the English translations.

  • Sam says:

    After a stretch of books that turned tropes and cliches all over my head, I'm ready for something straightforward and fun, but is there any indication that the remaining volumes will be translated more quickly than this first one? I'd hate to start a trilogy that takes 8 years between installments for translation services …

  • Anonymous says:

    I read this book long ago in the original and was delighted. I hope that the English-speaking readers can get acquainted with other books of the author (+ 10 novels) 😉

  • texcap says:

    I'm currently 3-chapters into the audio book version of Shadow Prowler (read by MacLeod Andrews) and am really enjoying the story, and the glimpse into the head of Shadow Harold so far. That bodes well and I look forward to my commute home this evening so as to listen to more.

  • We just got a confirmation from Dot, the publicist overseeing Pehov's novels. They are going to be released yearly. She said that due to Pehov's high-profile in his native country, and due to the major-league translator Bromfield, there shouldn't be any delays. It's just a matter of getting the translation finished, and scheduling it to be printed it seems.

    Good new for fans of the series.

  • Mib says:

    I'm sorry to say this is the first time I have to disagree. I just don't care about the main character enough, the writing doesn't hook me in. The plot just isn't that interesting to me.

    Just my opinion though.

  • Brentus says:

    I liked it too, thanks for the review. The first half of the book has a lot in common with the first half of the PC game Thief: The Dark Project. There are a ton of similarities. Not so much the story but the gameplay and types of setting. Reading this made me want to go back and play it again. If you haven't played it and want an interactive version of these kinds of things, it's an old game but still one of the best ever made.

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