The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter
The Wizard’s Shadow by Susan Dexter is, both at its best and at its core, a story about a fantastical, medieval odd-couple. Crocken, our down-on-his-luck protagonist, makes a deal with the shadow of a slain wizard. In exchange for letting this wizard’s shadow replace his natural one—and for helping transport it to the royal city of Axe-Edge for some nefarious purpose—Crocken makes a few coins and isn’t murdered by said shadow.
Dexter sets this up beautifully. The first chapter covers the death of the wizard, and due to the mythology of this world, this death is slow and torturous. As someone with a weak stomach and an over-active imagination, such a topic would normally bother me, and yet it didn't. Dexter pulled no punches, and the scene is realistically dark, yet it is just poetic and sparse enough to prevent my mind from lingering on the worst of it.
I was impressed, which was good, because for the next hundred pages or so, my interest waned. Interactions between Crocken and his shadow were fascinating, but while en-route to Axe-Edge, there was little reason for them to talk. Worse, Dexter’s prose can be needlessly dense or obtuse.
For example, at one point, “shadows danced gavottes before Crocken’s eyes.”
Obviously “shadows danced before Crocken’s eyes” is easy enough to parse, but what the hell is a gavotte? At the time, I couldn’t be bothered to look it up.
Today, Google tells me that the (a?) gavotte is a medium-paced French dance popular in the 18th century. Aside from the fact that this is a fantastical world without the country of France, and this particular dance is oddly niche, why even name the type of dance the shadows performed? She may as well have written that “shadows danced the macarena before Crocken’s eyes.”
Obviously, I could have skipped over the word gavotte and understood what had happened. So why the snark? Well, it was sandwiched between sentences like:
They were fair of face and prettily dressed, and betimes one or another was permitted to play upon a lute for him, in hope that sweet music would speed his convalescence.
My eyes still blurry from sleep, and my brain yet without caffeine, it took me damn-near all of my ten-minute commute to make it through that sentence. I’m not expecting authors to dumb down their books for my early-morning brain, but I have way too many examples of needlessly complex sentences using fifty-cent words. One or the other, please. I can’t handle both.
Other things niggled at me as well. All the women we see or hear of in the first 80 pages or so are one-dimensionally, almost pointlessly, cruel and/or stupid. The point-of-view of the story is a little too flexible. At one point, there’s a four-page info dump that I procrastinated finishing for days. Minor physical injuries are milked for weeks for dramatic effect. The storytelling goes out of its way to rationalize the completely rational behavior of its characters.
There are more things to pick at, but you get my point. And yet I kept reading. I liked the strange and growing relationship between Crocken and his shadow. I was curious about the shadow’s quest. And when a dignitary quipped at Crocken that his shadow behaved strangely, I was hooked. What did this dignitary know, and how did she know it?
My favorite part of The Wizard’s Shadow is Crocken’s evolving relationships with his shadow and the denizens of the royal city of Axe-Edge. I was especially delighted and enthralled with his mortal friendships. They were vulnerable, awkward, and authentic. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where a man tried to befriend another man, and then struggled with how to go about doing that.
I was rooting for them to bro-out like how I might root for two characters to fall in love. I was nervous about everything going on around them that might get between them and thrilled with every smile, every friendly gesture.
There is, sadly, a romantic element shoe-horned in at the end, and there are two plots—one emotional, one delightfully bizarre—going on behind the scenes, but my big takeaway from the novel is Crocken and his relationships.
The Wizard’s Shadow never became the perfect book, but it did remind me that a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
Cover art by Mark Harrison