The summary of THE SHADOW OF BLACK WINGS does not do it justice because it seems to indicate that this is a piece of historical fiction. It is not. There are dragons and magic from almost the first page. Calbraith has created an EXTENSIVE and exquisite "alternate" version of Queen Victoria's world. There are recognizable elements of the Victorian Empire, its reach, and the competing and/or colonized countries. But there is also a layered world of magic that exists within this somewhat familiar history. Even with the references to real history, this book is what I would call high fantasy. There are complex political and military maneuverings as well as entire races of people and dragons to absorb. The Asian element of the story made some of the names and places a little difficult for me because, as an English teacher, I always do my best to pronounce names correctly even in my head as I read. The descriptions of setting and character alike are rich and detailed. The inclusion of a map helps keep it all straight but Calbraith's attention to specifics and detailed histories of each of these places and peoples is impressive.
The characters are equally layered. It was so refreshing to read a main character with the correct balance of adolescent cockiness and normal, developmental self-doubt. These days so many books make their teenage main character either too mature and insightful for their age or the character is so whiny I almost can't take it. Bran is ready to be out on his own and shows that independence while also admitting to himself (and occasionally others) that he may not be as grown-up as he'd like everyone to think. He battles with self-doubt but it's not cloying. Sato and Nagomi are a well-balanced pair. I'm hoping to get a little more character development from them in the subsequent books in the series.
The storylines are well-written but the organization of the book as a whole threw me a little. It is the ONLY complaint I have about the book. The Prologue seems to float on it's own until about two-thirds of the way through the book. The first half of the book proper deals with Bran's story. Then, rather abruptly, the reader is thrown into Yamato with Sato and Nagomi with no transition. One doesn't even realize it is Yamato until a ways into this second part of the book. I would have liked to see alternating chapters or perhaps the different threads labeled as Part I and Part II. I was utterly confused for about 15 pages before I realized the stories would intersect. Something similar happens at the end of Book One, I assume to lead readers into the next book. I would have liked a smoother transition.
Overall, this is definitely worth your time if you are a fantasy fan. The detail and intricacy of the writing is impressive. With inclusion of races and histories, it almost reminds me of Tolkein - in Asia. With dragons. I think high school fantasy fans will eat it up. Middle school fantasy fans will like the story but some of the nuances may be lost on them. I'm interested to see where the story goes in the rest of the series and would suggest we all keep an eye on Calbraith.
Wonderful blend of history & fantasy2012/9/11
Imagine a really well written historical fiction, taking place in the mid 1800's, focusing on the adventures and intrigues occurring in and around imperial Japan. Now add an element of alternative history: the Roman Empire was never vanquished and is vying with other European powers for access to the Orient. And then top that off with a rich layer of dragons, magic and other fantasy elements. That's what you have with The Shadow of Black Wings. James Calbraith does a wonderful job at weaving fact and fantasy into an alternative but very realistic history that pulls the reader into its richness. I'm definitely going to be reading the next book in the series.
Fun mix of fantasy, alternate history and steampunk2012/11/8
Combine fantasy with alternate history, throw in a dash of steampunk and you have The Shadow of Black Wings. This was a really fun read. Elements of fantasy like magic and dragons combine with steampowered ships and clockwork gadgets all set in an alternate version of our world where the Roman Empire still exists. Completely original and unexpected.
The world-building here is phenomenal. The magic systems are interesting but not so complex that you don't understand what's happening. There are languages here that sound just familiar enough that you know where they are "supposed"to be from. The settings are familiar but distinct. There are versions of England, Rome, China, Japan and others. They are familiar enough to make the reader comfortable in the geography but original enough to keep you interested in learning more about them.
There were a couple of things that I did not like so much. First, the point of view never technically changes but the character focus changes throughout the book without warning. I'd be reading pages of Bran and then all of the sudden Dylan was the main focus. I found it jarring and even confusing in a couple of parts. I had to go back an re-read paragraphs on more than one occasion. I don't mind changing focus but I prefer it if there is a clear delineation - either a chapter change or a "split" in the chapter (a **** between sections)
I also found the plot a little bit weak. I enjoyed reading about each of the characters and about Bran's journey but I never really knew where the book was going. I didn't know if the book was about Bran's journey, about the political climate, about the magic and dragons, or about something else entirely. I didn't feel like it was building to any real climax. Don't get me wrong, there were exciting parts! I just don't think there was one big storyline linking everything together.I suspect that this book is really the backdrop for bigger things to happen in Book 2 and beyond.
I definitely plan on reading the next book in the series, The Warrior's Soul. There was no huge cliffhanger in this book but there are a lot of unanswered questions. I am eager to learn what happens to Bran, Sato and Nagomi. Do they find Bran's dragon? Who is this man in the crimson robe? What's the story with Bran's grandfather? What happened to Dylan? I'm guessing that the second book will be action packed now that the scene is set and the cast of characters has been introduced. I can't wait to read more.
Note: I received a copy of this book for free from the author in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are 100% my own.
For the Worldbuilding Lovers2013/6/24
While the writing is excellent, be aware that you will need to really love worldbuilding in order to enjoy this book. If you love Tolkien's Similarion, this book is for you.
Otherwise, start reading at the start of Chapter 12, and skip the first 3/4 of the book. This is the place where the story actually starts. Any important details you missed are covered again in the last 6 chapters. This book is aptly named, as the antagonist doesn't actually make a move or do anything until the very last chapter of the book.
The rest of the book the characters are receiving very vague portents of doom, and we learn almost every nation is fighting with almost every other nation. The world in the novel is the same state as the world in about 1890s, except there is some steampunk technology, magic, oh - and dragons, of course.
The pace of the novel never gets above 'slow' until the very last chapter.
However, now that author got all that worldbuilding and omens of doom out of the way, maybe something of interest will actually happen in book 2?
I don't like abrupt end2013/1/4
I dislike books that have no real ending forcing you to buy the next book. It wasn't that great a book for me to want to do that. The author could have come to a better stopping place and where you would have wanted to desperately have the next book'!!