This book is the first in the Chronicles of Elantra series, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I finally picked it up to read, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it is a fairly thick book, which would require a sizable time investment, or maybe because I couldn't remember where I'd heard of it or who'd recommended it to me. I was under the impression, based on the cover, that it was a paranormal urban fantasy, possibly romance, but when I started reading I found that it's a fantasy novel, with elements of dark fantasy, set in a richly depicted world.
Once I was a few pages into the book, I was kicking myself for having waited so long to start. Our heroine is Kaylin, and she is a Hawk, which is one of several groups of law enforcement in the city of Elantra. She grew up, however, in the streets of the fief known as Nightshade, a place that is dark, full of crime and illicit magic, not to mention shadowy carnivorous creatures that prey on the weak and helpless. She has left all that behind her now, and she is strong, a fierce fighter, and she has found a place for herself, a safe place with people she cares about.
Within the first few pages of the novel, however, she finds her world reeling when she is called in for a meeting with the Hawklord, one of the winged Aerians who populate Elantra (along with Dragon lords and the immortal Barrani - and of course regular humans like Kaylin). There have been children found murdered in the fief of Nightshade, where Kaylin grew up - murders that are connected to her past there, to something painful that she'd thought she left behind her. She is to go back into Nightshade to investigate - and she is to take with her someone she'd also believed she'd left safely in the past. Upon seeing him, the first things he does, reacting without thinking, is hurl a knife at his heart.
The plot thickens, and Kaylin is led back to things from her past that have haunted her for years - and this time, with each death, it becomes clear how very much is at stake - and how very little time she has.
The narrative structure is unexpectedly nonlinear, and aside from the characters, this structure is my favorite thing about the book. Kaylin has basically refused to dwell on the painful events from her past for so long that her mind veers from them even as current events force her to re-examine them. The reader is given information about those events piecemeal, through Kaylin's memories and conversations, and as Kaylin allows these memories to surface, the reader gains access to them as well.
Events from the present are puzzling until we realize what happened in the past, and there is a back-and-forth feeling to the narrative that gives the reader clues from the past to combine with clues from the present, as the characters and the reader attempt to solve the mystery. This unusual structure is a risky choice for an author to make, I think, particularly as it more commonly used in literary fiction than in genre fantasy, but I thought it was beautifully executed and very effective. I never felt as though I were being manipulated in order to heighten the suspense. It felt natural to me, and added a psychological element to the novel that gave it additional depth.
I absolutely adored the characters in this book - they come across so vividly that I felt very attached to them by the end of the story. The plot comes to a satisfying resolution, but there is a sense of further areas to explore, so I'm looking forward to starting the next book in the series soon. There's so much here to like - the humor, the emotional resonance, the intricate world-building, the characters, the sense of wonder. I'm delighted by how many books there are in the series - and by the fact that this author has written other series as well. I think this book would appeal to fans of C.J. Cherryh, Patricia Briggs (particularly those who enjoyed her early fantasy novels), Anne Bishop, J.D. Robb and Jacqueline Carey.
Books in the Chronicles of Elantra series:
1. Cast in Shadow
2. Cast in Courtlight
3. Cast in Secret
4. Cast in Fury
5. Cast in Silence
6. Cast in Chaos
Cast in Shadow (#1 in the Chronicles of Elantra series) by Michelle Sagara (Luna, 2005)
Source: public library
Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "...a mix of dark and high fantasy, peopled with a smattering of solid gold, humorous, and truly sinister characters living in a fully developed, layered, and fascinating world."
Ink and Paper: "If it hooked me, and things were explained in nice simple terms I think I'd probably love it, because even now, thinking over some of the twists and turns, it was a good story."
Today's Adventure: "Cast in Shadows is an interesting blend of a high fantasy novel and a crime procedural with a dry sense of humor that gives it a flavor all its own."