If you haven’t heard of Shad Brooks, you should really check him out. He’s probably best known for his YouTube channel, Shadiversity, where he talks about all kinds of medieval swords, castles, fantasy literature, and related topics. Though an engineer by trade, he is amazingly knowledgeable about medieval armament, and I’ve learned things from him that are useful even in science fiction writing.
However, Shad isn’t just an engineer and a medieval enthusiast. He has written a fantasy novel of his own, relying on his extensive knowledge. Shadow of the Conqueror, Book 1 of The Chronicles of Everfall, is now available for sale on Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, and probably others. Everfall offers a unique fantasy world that isn’t like anything I’ve seen in total, but includes brilliant worldbuilding, authentic historical lifestyles, and some of the favorite fantasy tropes reconstructed in a rigorous way.
Now, I’ll admit, the book had a rough start. Shad’s exposition felt stilted and forced for maybe the first five chapters—more like he was explaining his world in one of his videos than actually telling a story in it. (And his dialogue could use a bit of work, too.) I much prefer stories that throw you in the deep end and tell you only what the characters see, leaving you to piece things together from the context. It can be tricky to pull off, but when it’s done well, it makes you feel like you’re really there. I don’t think Shad needed to go all the way there, but showing rather than telling at the beginning would have been a big help.
But for all that, once you get through the first few chapters, Shadow of the Conqueror is a pretty good story from then on. I was worried at first, but it really picked up by the end.
My rating: 4 out of 5.
Shadow of the Conqueror is set on a continent called Tellos that floats in an endless sky. Its world is looped back on itself so that if you fall off the edge, you fall for a day and then wind up back where you started. It’s also a world of perpetual light; the Sun hangs motionless in the sky, and because of the strange magic of the world, anyone who is trapped in darkness for a full day is transformed into a vampire-like creature called a Shade.
But that’s just the backdrop. The “hero” of this story is Daylen Namaran, also known as Dayless the Conqueror, a murderous dictator now living in exile who wishes to atone for his crimes. “Cursed,” as he would put it, with prolonged life to live with his guilt, and given the power to wield magic by mysterious means, he sets out to try to do some good in the world for once.
The choice of a mass murderer and rapist for a protagonist may seem like a strange one, but it’s not unprecedented. Alfred Bester famously pulled it off quite well with Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination (1957). It may not make for the most relatable character, but it certainly makes for an interesting and flawed one. (Even when Daylen is trying to do good, he’s a real jerk about it.)
I think a big part of the backstory here is that Shad has said in the past that he is a Mormon, and through that lens, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the themes of redemption and forgiveness are a little too heavy-handed in this book. Daylen’s constant angsting over his guilt is…honestly, probably deserved, but it could be tiresome at times, and I was glad to see him more or less resolve it by the end.
(As an aside, I think a bit of Shad’s politics shows here, too. Mormons are known for being politically conservative, and in his time as a villain, Daylen was, anachronistically, a communist dictator.)
But all that aside, one of the best things about Shadow of the Conqueror is that the worldbuilding here is masterful. Shad has carefully (and scientifically!) crafted a fairly limited magic system with great potential. One can specialize in one of three kinds of magic (arguably five, but it’s subtle), and each one can only do a few things, but magic users are very creative with how they use their powers. This gives magic interesting limitations, but still enough flexibility that I was surprised and please to see a full-on superhero fight within the book’s pages.
Other fantasy tropes are also well-represented. The book is set in not a medieval-style or even a Renaissance-style setting, but in an early industrial era. This does two things. First, it allows the characters much more leeway to apply scientific principles for creative magic use. And second, it allows them to build technology that looks suspiciously like steampunk (albeit magic-powered).
However, in an industrial society, it’s not normal for everyone to be carrying swords around, much less duelling with them, as you’d see in medieval fantasy. And if they do, they’ll probably be less cool-looking rapiers or smaller fencing swords. How do you get around that? The constant threat of monsters that can only be killed by cutting their heads off means that it’s a tradition for everyone to carry a broadsword and train in how to use it.
Shad uses these and other points of worldbuilding, combined with authentic knowledge of premodern weapons, engineering, and architecture, to create a very authentic fantasy world that any fantasy lover can still have fun with, and that is why I can easily recommend his debut novel.