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“The Duchess of Shallows” is the story of an orphaned girl with a not-so-simple-past who embarks on a path to join The Grey, an underworld organization specializing in information brokering, spying, and thievery. The key to achieving her goal involves a challenging entrance exam: a medieval Oceans Eleven style robbery of a rich baron’s treasure.
The story brings to mind other recent fantasy about the gritty underside of re-imagined medieval cities — cities populated by ubiquitous gangs, ruthless thugs, noble thieves, perverted nobles, corrupt city guards, and lovable whores. You’ll see some similarities in setting to Brent Weeks’ “The Way of Shadows”. I also felt slight shades of Douglas Hulick’s “Among Thieves” in the plot and setting.
There’s a lot to like about The Duchess of the Shallows, especially considering it’s an indie book. The authors spend a good deal of time building up an interesting world. There are various competing factions in the seedy underside of the city – from the The Grey (criminal organizations, shrouded in secrecy – basically a thieves guild), The Red, a gang of murdering extortionists, to the various cults scattered about the city areas.
It feels like an interesting city, one that you do want to explore. There’s always something exciting – or dangerous – just around that alley corner.
The world portrayed is one of grit and dirt, where bad things happen and happen often. There’s references to sex (though not descriptive), both the heterosexual and homosexual; there’s violence and there’s a lot of prostitution. Again, the authors shy away from the actual details, but it’s all there in the background.
What the authors do not shy away from is the hard stuff of the underworld life — the supporting character Lysander for example, works part time as a male prostitute. Combined with his martial competence and his natural street smarts, Lysander’s rather unusual side occupation breaks the fantasy mold of a typical hero. Kudos to the authors here for doing something different in this regard.
The writing – for an indie published novel – is not bad. I’ve certainly read indie fantasy fiction with a lot worse prose. There’s nothing fancy or lyrical about the prose and while there are occasional chunky descriptions and uneven sentences, as a whole the prose is good enough for the telling of the tale.
The story too is generally an interesting one — you do want to finish reading the book to see how the Duchess accomplishes her goal.
As a whole, the Duchess of the Shallows is a fairly short novel – for the most part there is no rambling (except for all the heavy descriptions and flashbacking used to world build), no pointless wandering, no writing for the sake of filling page counts. What happens in the story is central to the plot and the heroine is always doing something to further her goal. There’s not a lot of meat to the story other than the stated goal of joining the thieves guild and carrying out the robbery, so if you want to see more of the world and find out more about the character, you’ll need to continue on with the other books which flesh out the city, the character, and the world much more.
While there are many good points to the story, there are also a number of issues that detract from it. Frankly, I feel many if not all are fixable if the book had a proficient editor to catch these.
The writing suffers from too much exposition, either through the protagonist’s thought explanations to her random childhood flashbacks. The last chapter, in fact, details directly to the readers the impact the plot events have on the wider story as a whole; I felt vaguely patronized after this.
The flashbacks as a narrative device are very jarring and completely halt the flow of the story. The authors do a good job at the start jumping right into the action, but afterwards the plot and story occasionally halt while the protagonist experiences yet-another-flashback. I get the authors are trying to build up the heroine’s backstory here, but the way it’s done detracts more than it adds and many of the flashbacks fill out unnecessary detail that’s not relevant (or could be revealed by action or some other means that flows better).
The authors occasionally shift the narrative between two (unexplained) personalities, Steel and Silk, who jumped out of the shadows and into the writing without explanation when the protagonist faces difficult situations — a sort of metaphor, I realized, for the author’s current state of mind. But. I had to actually backtrack through the story looking to see what this ‘Steel’ and ‘Silk’ were, thinking they were specific characters I skimmed over. This was confusing and seriously halts the narrative.
The worldbuilding felt it was heavily inspired by the old-school Forgotten Realms books; the city districts, the sub-districts, the power groups, the various gangs, and even job occupations are given specific over-the-top fantasy names. Get used to nomenclature like the Grey, the Red, the White, the Shallows, the Deep, the Foreign Quarter, Lightboys, the Uncle, the War of the Quills, the Color War, etc. With all these fantasy ‘names’ being tossed around in such a crowded space (we are talking mostly about a city here not an empire or a large swath of land and kingdoms), at times the city felt like it came straight from one of the Neverwinter Nights video games. This works for a video game, but if you are trying to come up with your own fantasy world, it comes off as unoriginal.
The characters also tend to fall into the cliché category — now considering most of the fantasy genre is one big cliche, this is not a bad thing, if the story strong, the characters awesome or something about the tale is fresh. There’s nothing wrong with doing the typical thing here, but if you are not going to innovate in some way, then you’ve got to have a solidly written tale or something else going on to make up for it. While the author tries to do a few new things (a sidekick character who’s a male prostitute), the novel is mostly filled with archetypes straight out of a RPG video game. The heroine, herself, we’ve seen countless times across endless books. I was looking for something a bit unique to be done with her, but Duchess falls into the typical ‘spunky female hero’ category — the self-driven girl with a hidden past who’s been unfairly tossed from the top to the bottom of the social rung, who though a series of fortunate events works her way back into power to seek revenge or uncover the WHY of her original fall.
The Final Word
As a whole ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’ is not a bad book at all, especially considering its indie origins. Published books often have a team of editors cleaning up the writing in the draft; this is not the case when you are an indie author self publishing. So some slack here is given. The book is certainly readable.
Indeed, while there are some major issues with the book, these could be fixed through the help of a skilled editor revising the book. So the skeleton of a good book is here in The Duchess of the Shallows, but you have to dig down a bit to find it.
If you are a fan of gritty underworld fantasy about spies and whores, about gangs and thieves, and you don’t mind a slower story, you’ll likely enjoy The Duchess of the Shallows. Note that this is the first book of a series, and the scope of the novel mostly serves to just introduce the heroine of the tale — so you’ll need to invest in the next couple books in the series to see a far more fleshed out world and character.
All in all, there’s a good tale here to be told in The Duchess of the Shallows; readers with a bit of a patience who enjoy fantasy about the underworld and thieves guilds will probably like the book; let’s just hope the authors clean things up in the next few books to make the story a bit more accessible to the reader.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!