Review: Shadow in the Empire of Light – Jane Routley

Review: Shadow in the Empire of Light – Jane RoutleyShadow in the Empire of Light
by Jane Routley
Publisher: Solaris
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 350
Source: NetGalley

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne Star

A magical novel of intrigue, mystery and family drama from the award-winning author of Aramaya and Fire Angels

Shine’s life is usually dull: an orphan without magic in a family of powerful mages, she’s left to run the family estate with only an eccentric aunt and telepathic cat for company.

But when the family descend on the house for the annual Fertility Festival, Shine is plunged into intrigue; stolen letters, a fugitive spy and family drama mix with an unexpected murder, and Shine is forced to decide both her loyalties and future...

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Content warnings: View Spoiler »

I like house party mysteries, heroines who are disadvantaged but plucky, and fantasy matriarchal societies, so I should’ve liked this book. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me, largely due to the amount of content warnings.

“It was odd to be the strong one here. Mages have the power, not mundanes. Odd to be the one giving help instead of receiving it.”

The worldbuilding is interesting, once you get enough information about it. The empire where the book is set is a matriarchal society where a person’s standing is very much based on whether you’re born with magic, and females are by default more powerful mages than men. Those without magic are immediately lesser and subject to the whims of their more magically capable family. It’s so bad that Shine actually refers to some of her non-magical relatives as “Cousin Two” and “Auntie Four” – apparently they’re not even worthy of names. Supposedly there are laws in place to protect the non-magical from the worst of the abuses, but, from what we see in the book, I have a lot of doubts about whether those were actually enforced. Men are basically studs – at one point, one of Shine’s cousins confesses that he was essentially View Spoiler » by another cousin, and Shine’s only advice is to stand up to her bullying (?!?!). I really found myself struggling to like Shine, which was rough, since the book is told from her first person POV. While I think she generally meant well, she was also very much a product of her upbringing in a way that was very reminiscent of the British empire – she doesn’t seem to see Shadow, a pale-skinned foreigner (commonly called “ghosts” by Shine’s people) who ends up literally hiding under her bed, as fully human, constantly steamrolls over his boundaries (she even spies on him while he’s changing even after he tells her he’s uncomfortable with that because she wants to see if he’s equipped the same as a “regular” man), and despite being half-foreign herself, sees foreigners as something like uneducated savages. While she does grow as the book continues, I was still deeply uncomfortable with the framing and never felt like it was fully interrogated. There’s no pushback and no justice for the wronged family members.

“So I was in an uncomfortable place where someone I liked had done something I deeply disapproved of for reasons I understood. What stance should I take? How did I react? Was it even for me to judge?”

Pretty much all the characters are horrible people. Shine’s father was a foreigner, so Shine’s paler than the rest of her family, and they never let her forget that or that she doesn’t have magic. Even the cousins that are vaguely nice to her, Lucient and Klea, seem only to do it to get her to do things for them. The amount of abuse (physical, emotional and sexual) among the family members was extremely uncomfortable for me. Pretty much the only character I liked was Katti, Shine’s psychic cat, but there’s not enough of her and she doesn’t really serve any purpose in the story.  By the end of the book, while we’re told Katti is unusual, we’re not really told why or given much backstory for her. I mean, I kept waiting for someone to explain why Shine, who’s supposedly non-magical, is psychically connected to a giant cat, but no one else seemed concerned with that. I mean, I also liked Shadow, the “ghost” foreigner, but due to his initial issues communicating with Shine and her general inability to see him as a person, we don’t get too much of him as a real character, either.

My other issue was that the plot was a complete muddle. Shine is constantly being pulled between running the household despite the ridiculous demands of her visiting relatives, trying to hide the “ghost,” and solving a mystery for her cousin. I kept expecting each of these plot lines to be woven together (the rebels, the mooncat, the missing letter, the presence of the ghost, the murder, etc) but in the end, they didn’t. It was a bit like expecting a soup (where all the elements had cooked together and melded) and ending up with a salad.

Overall, while the overall premise and worldbuilding had promise, the execution didn’t work for me.

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