Shadow in the Empire of Light Author: Jane Routley Publisher: Rebellion Publishing Solaris Page count: 350pp Release date: 21 Jan. 2021
Shine, a 23 year old female, is likely to remain on the farm of Willow-in-the-Mist Estate, with no magic powers, no nobility, no inheritance and no children, until the day she dies. She works the land for her foster mother Eff, makes it profit but won’t see any of that money, because she is not a mage so it goes to her higher level family, because her mom left for the Ghostlands to never return. Unfortunately her mom hadn’t left instructions to give her any money or education. Katti is Shine’s only real companion; a very large wildcat, who talks in Shine’s head, and is a typically arrogant, smug creature. Magic is an accepted thing in this post-regency/19th century universe and Shine (referred to as ghostie-girl by her mage cousin Bright due to her mixed parentage) and half-breed ghost by the nastier family members, is full of anger at her family, as she awaits their arrival for this year’s Blessing party’. The whole religion and society of the Empire of Light is based on fertility and is matriarchal. Shine is talking to her cousin Bright, who has snuck back to the estate, as the bunch of trumped up magic-wielding nobility arrive in a floating phaeton parade of splendour and ridiculous pomp. The estate is where Shine, Bright -his valet Stefan Graceson – and his brother Daneel Graceson were raised. Adult Bright has now been disinherited because of his love for Stefan, so they turned to a Military life. And as he says, it’s certainly more freeing than “life at Elayison. Hanging about smoking dreamsmoke and ranting on about nothing …” Bright and Stefan have returned to the estate with Shadow, an unregistered ghost, who is investigating Crystal smuggling – the crystals used by mages. The couple are helping Shadow return to his home in exchange for his help finding Shine’s mother, who Bright believes is still alive. The history of turmoil between the ‘Pale Outlanders’ or ghosts started when they came from the Bone Mountains to the Empire of Light. When they do come down for trade or other needs, they are watched carefully, treated with fear. It’s clear there is animosity, bias and discrimination at work between the races. In this world, those with lighter skin are the ones facing prejudice. Don’t worry, this is not a ‘swap the colour of skin’ for simple metaphor book. There’s lots to get to grips with and enjoy here, particularly the complexity of the characters. It sounds a bit confusing, but it only takes a few pages to grasp the world build. It’s done succinctly and with skill. Most of the action takes place over the course of a week, in the midst of the ‘Blessing’ party, a kind of four day fertility festival where the gods are celebrated and well… everyone is “getting it on”. Amidst it all, there’s political intrigue, spying by Hagen Stellason – ‘secretary’ Impi who is consort of Lady Splendance (queen of the festival), sexual harassment and attempted murder. Nice, normal family then. In fact Lucient, a family member Shine actually gets on with, is abused by one of the elite females trying to use him to birth mages for power, and she uses ‘Rampant’ , essentially a form of viagra, to force him into sex. It reminded me very much of the elements in Bridgerton the series, based on books by Julia Quinn. With the religion – excluding the matriarchal society – the promiscuity, decadence and elitism, the Empire is exactly what it sounds like; basically a metaphor of the British Empire mingled with USA history, the Roman Empire and the worst qualities of all of these, redolent with indentured slaves and bigotry. Oh, and the taking of land. We have the Licensing of ‘ghosts’ or ‘immigrants’ that feels very much like the early stages of the ‘80s series V. Ghostland, where the ghosts live, reads as a kind of refugee camp, or perhaps the land behind a wall? Hmmm Wry social commentary, banter between characters, and jokes aimed at current civilisation such as Lord Igniate’s floating chair, all combine to make this a fun, intelligent but very relevant and fast-paced read. Sly remarks such as magekind bringing the “civilising influence of the Lady of Light” to the ghosts also screams colonialism. It’s cleverly done from Shine’s point of view, so we experience her view of the world, which is kind of naive, whilst we, the wizened reader, see the grime hidden under the light. Interestingly enough, Shine is of a lower class than her cousins who have magic, is mixed race and does not own her property so is low on a hierarchy scale, yet she is very privileged despite all of this, because her family is just a little to the left of the Empress. And she is still considered better than ‘ghosts’. When she meets the ghost Shadow, she screams, and as their relationship continues, she is at first ignorant and patronising. “Think of him like some child we have to care for.” Yet she is still a likeable person, is trying to do the right thing and is soon correcting her cousin Klea about her behaviour towards Shadow. Almost as though she is learning to be more empathic and is overcoming the ignorance she has, mostly due to her upbringing. Lots of horrific things come as a surprise to her, but as she learns, she becomes a better person. This is a real hero; a character with heart and flaws. As for figures like Blazeann and Toy, well they’re pretty despicable in truth, and Scinty, the man she admires, is not quite the man she thought. This is an amazing first book in a future series that I’m sure will offer more shenanigans and character growth. After all, with ghosts like Shadow saying “Love is love,” and the ‘Light’ Empire disowning Bright for his love, who is really the better person? I can’t wait to see Shine discover more about the world and herself.