In Shades of Grey by Melissa Myers

Read  October 2017
Recommended for fans of In the Name of the Wind
★    ★    ★   


A friend and I were talking about children’s books, and one lifelong reading preference that I’ve only gradually reined in is a preference for fantasies that include animals. I have no idea how this book came to my attention, as none of my friends have added or reviewed, but it undoubtedly remained due to the heroine being described as acquiring “a Familiar like no other” and then a lovely picture of a silver lion on the cover. What retained my attention was bits of intriguing world building, including the idea of Aspects (done best in Fred Saberhagen’s Gods series) and Houses (done best by Steven Brust’s Taltos series).

It begins with Jala as a small girl, clearly the darling of the household and the daughter of her father’s eye. They are heading out to work in the fields one day when a wave of death overtakes them, killing everything in its path. Somehow, Jala survives, is found by two vigilantes and taken to a nearby temple devoted to the aspect of Fortune. The story jumps forward in time, to when Jala needs to leave the temple and travel to the city of Sanctuary to be trained in the use of her magic. Before she leaves, the Aspect of Fortune stops by for a little chat with her, info-dumps about her parents (specifically, her dads) and national politics, gives her a ton of money, and in a move worthy of the Fairy Godmother, updates her wardrobe and baubles. She travels to the harbor and by an odd stroke of luck, meets a young pilot, Shade, who just happens to be heading to Sanctuary as well.  Turns out he is the first surviving son of one of the major Houses, is very kind and filthy rich.

Jala’s journey to Sanctuary and the first few weeks there is one of the fuller sections of the story, and remains intriguing despite the Orphan Destined for Greatness trope. Jala is quick (avoiding the TSTL trait), curious, open-minded and generally kind, so it’s a pleasure to spend time with her. Friend Shade has a cousin, Finn, who’s a renowned duelist and full-time cad, and it isn’t long before Jala meets Finn and is suckered into drinking a few too many. It’s the set-up for a love triangle, but thankfully, Myers avoids the full-blown trope. Finn brings Jala to his super-talented older brother who ‘unblocks’ her magic and we discover her magic is Amazing. Jala also has to contend with romantic attention from an unwanted admirer.  Myers takes some time to build a nice picture of Sanctuary and of the personal politics that surround her new friends.

Strangely, however, the book skips almost everything to do with classes and learning magic, instead jumping forward three months to a more proficient Jala (Harry Potter this ain’t). She’s having terrible nightmares, dreaming of the burning of her home and hearing someone calling to her. She and her friends go on an expedition by magic portal to the area she came from and discover a Familiar waiting. This is generally billed as a very amazing thing, except her Familiar does nothing further except threaten to eat people and offer mating advice. It’s very odd because the character is hugely underutilized and seems to provide no actual value. Compare, for instance, magic reservoir of Companions in the Valdemar series, or the aid in witchcraft from lizard familiars in Taltos. From there, the boon companions go on another quest where Jala does some Amazing, Unheard-of Magic. After she recovers, they meet up with the lawmen. Then Jala gets married, and meets with the leaders of many of the Houses about taking back her historical lands.

I have a very mixed reaction to this story. Based on the edition I read, I wanted to suggest one more major edit if Myers wanted to reach blockbuster potential. There’s some really great bones in here, but the trouble is that the world-building feels a little kitchen sink. We don’t need every device available (magic portals, airships, horses), ‘schooling’ versus other kinds of learning, or the idea that the population was ‘imprisoned’ on this world through a particular barrier.

More importantly, the drastic time-skips through this particular book don’t allow as detailed of development as the story needed. Think of The Belgariad, and how Garion’s travel through the land gave opportunity for character development and a paced plot.

Although Myers avoids some tropes, others she dives into head first. Jala befriends a notorious womanizer (“bedded every woman in this tavern”) who stops two or three months into their friendship, realizing Jala is his soulmate. Jala is independent enough to ultimately want space away from Shade, but although she supposedly strikes out for her own apartment, it’s only a short time before she’s moving in Finn’s compound. And, sadly, it pretty much solidly fails the Bechdel test with a couple token women in Shade’s household and only one in Finn’s. It’s still the affirmative action type of world-building instead of something truly representational and random as seen in Steven Aryan‘s Mageborn series.

Most of the writing is decent, above average for a first book. There were a few parts where I thought the wording sounded stilted, but overall, I read without being distracted by the writing. Occasionally, dialoge felt a little too modern. When it came to world-building, I didn’t understand why Shade, who supported the idea that there are ‘shades of grey,’ was such an outlier. Everyone we meet is operating in shades of grey and understands a few smaller sacrifices may be made for larger ones. There’s also a repeated statement that  seems to be a philosophy for the entire population, but was immensely puzzling:  “There are two types of Immortals in the prison, those with the will to fight, and those that provoke the fights.”

I’ll finally note, for the love of a thesaurus, please stop using the word ‘smirked.’ There’s at least 16-17, and it started to grate.

Had Brandon Sanderson written this book, it would have been stretched to at least two more books, if not three.  It feels a great deal like a novella or two tied together with a short story. That said, I think I’d comfortably recommend this to people who enjoy fantasy, particularly the Lackey’s Valdemar series and Rothfuss’ Wise Man’s Fear.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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