From the 1950s up through the 1980s, the paperback original dominated genre fiction. Some became undeniable classics—the Ace Science Fiction Specials included the first publications of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore—but most aimed less at dazzling critics than at presenting rousing adventure tales. They might rarely be your Favorite Book Ever, yet if you got hooked on an author—or a series—you’d grab title after title.
Unless you’ve got the next Dresden Files, though, major publishers aren’t interested in those kinds of titles anymore. This has opened a gap for self-published and small press ebooks to fill. Series like Annie Bellet’s The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and, closer to home, Phil Geusz’s David Birkenhead septology would fit beside 1980s stalwarts like Diane Duane and Alan Dean Foster. Amazon and Goodreads are full of well-loved series—far more than there were in the paperback’s heyday, and once inflation is accounted for, at lower prices.
One of those series is Joseph R. Lallo’s The Book of Deacon, a trilogy starting with a novel of the same title. The Rise of the Red Shadow is a standalone prequel described as “Book 0” of the trilogy, telling the origin story of one of Deacon’s side characters: a “legendary assassin and mythic hero” named Lain, a malthrope—an anthropomorphic fox.
The story opens as slavers tracking down a runaway discover his body next to that of a female malthrope’s, evidently having killed one another in a struggle—likely to protect her young kit. Humans consider Malthropes to be monsters:
Stories told of them carrying off children and raiding livestock. The creatures were the villains of more than their share of bedtime stories, and were always a safe thing to blame for your problems if you weren’t happy with your lot in life. One of the few things that the north and south halves of the continent could agree upon was that wiping the creatures out would be an improvement. Thus, a price had been put on their heads—or, more accurately, their tails. Slicing the tail off an adult and handing it in to the authorities would net you a small fortune in entus, the silver coins that lined the pockets of the more well-off Tressons.
This passage simultaneously reveals both a virtue and vice of the writing. The milieu has been extensively developed, its breadth and depth rivaling sword and sorcery classics. (Lallo’s Tressor is more reminiscent of Lankhmar than Middle-Earth.) But in countless passages like the one above, the story pauses for a moment to give us background. While introducing readers to a complex and unfamiliar world is always tricky, it sometimes feels like Lallo has avoided the “As you know…” problem by constantly stopping to hand us reference cards.
The reward for young malthropes calls for capturing them alive; the slavers give the baby to a plantation owner as a “discount” on an older, sightless slave. Over the course of the novel’s first act, Blind Ben finds himself the de facto caretaker and defender of the “mally” as the young fox rapidly grows and, to anyone paying attention, shows himself to be at least as smart as any of the humans around him. When the plantation passes into the hands of the original owner’s incompetent son, he takes his own business failings out on his slaves—including the aging Ben. Stricken by sorrow that turns into rage, the nameless malthrope becomes a one-fox revolt against his masters.
Without delving too much farther into spoiler territory, the rest of Red Shadow follows the malthrope through distinct episodes in his life as he seeks his purpose in life, focused on the words of his mentor Blind Ben: “without a purpose, there can be no worth.” Sorrel, a female malthrope he meets shortly after his escape, teaches him about his race and how to survive outside of human society in feral fashion; a network of legally-sanctioned assassins who act as bounty hunters affords him work, but also sets up a nemesis in the criminal kingpin Duule; a mysterious land of refugees hidden behind a cave of legendary danger leads him to the perfection of his fighting talents. Along the way, Teyn—as Sorrel names him—picks up both his new name and his nickname, the “Red Shadow.”
Some of the supporting characters—most notably the volatile Sorrel, but also Ben and the fairy Fiora—pop off the page. The stoic and emotionally stunted Teyn is well-drawn, but while he develops tremendous prowess and gains important insights, his character arc doesn’t have much curve to it. The villains are appropriately mustache-twirling but stay flat, with one exception: an early scene introduces two generals in “the kingdom formerly known as Vulcrest” and tells us of prophesies that clearly set them in opposition to Teyn. This is a great sequence, defining their characters quickly, setting up intrigue, and priming us for a fantastic faceoff. If that faceoff arrives, though, it doesn’t happen in this book. The novel ends without Teyn being aware of their existence.
The disappearing villains—presumably major players in the full trilogy—signal a problem for anyone coming to Red Shadow cold. The novel’s payoff is clearly meant to be Teyn coming into his role as Lain for The Book of Deacon. To readers who are already fans, this may be enough, but that payoff isn’t in this book. Each of Teyn’s adventures has its own set of tensions and thrills, and each ends with an important epiphany that shapes his outlook. Yet there’s little urgency to the whole affair. He does what he does until events make it impossible for him to keep doing that, then he does something else. He has long-term goals, but he’ll get to them when he gets to them. The story is less a quest than a picaresque; you’re curious what happens next, but you rarely feel like you can’t put the book down until you know.
While this makes it hard to recommend The Rise of the Red Shadow on its own, it’s good enough to inspire interest in The Book of Deacon itself. Lallo’s prose is solid—infodumps not withstanding—and, again, the worldbuilding is impressive. (Tressor may not be a world you’d want to visit, mind you; while it may not qualify as “grimdark,” not a single character in Red Shadow has a happy life. Teyn’s circumstances may give things a more dire pall, but the opening scenes of The Book of Deacon don’t paint any more a hospitable picture.) Even though I found the novel slow, it brought back fond memories of going through fantasy paperbacks like popcorn during my high school and college days.