Rating: 5 out of 5
Oh, how much I love the melding of genres. To mix and match different aspects of specific literary tropes and use them to tell a truly original and captivating tale can be a wonderful thing to experience, when executed correctly. It then becomes nothing but a story, allowing the reader to concentrate on the strength of the tale being told rather than if they followed all the requisite “rules” ascribed to said genre – ala, in the case of fantasy, the use of magic, mystical beasts, and world-building.
This all brings us to Cadman’s Gambit: Shader Book I by D.P. Prior, a novel that now holds a place in my heart as the most perfect introductory novel to a series I’ve ever read, surpassing the previous champion, The Gunslinger.
In truth, there are quite a few similarities between Prior’s book and the seminal work of King. We follow a gruff, old, and cranky warrior (Roland and Shader), travel along a path in search of an object of untold power (the Rose and the statue of Eingana), and there are remnants of an advanced, ancient civilization lurking beneath the surface of both worlds.
This is where the comparison ends, however. While The Dark Tower chronicles the journey of a single man and his quest for absolution, in Shader we’re presented with a much larger, more universal plight – the elevation of man into a place of honor within the universe. It’s a rather lofty goal that Prior has saddled himself with, and one he’s amazingly able to pull off.
In Cadman’s Gambit we’re introduced, in different flashbacks and wild, swashbuckling tales, to the main character, Deacon Shader. But in almost every way, Shader is overshadowed by the complexity, originality, and turmoil of the world he exists in. This is a version of Earth that has gone far beyond us – 900 years since the end of “civilization as we know it”, pretty much – and there are mystical, as well as scientific, wonders drifting about. There are individuals who have lived for centuries, galactic warlords on the quest for universal domination, and many questions pertaining to the nature of existence, including time, itself. Religion is widely discussed, and even ridiculed, in fact becoming the one uniting and divisive cog in the machine, echoing that fact that though society as we know it has moved on, humans remain humans, whether they ascribe to a Christian derivative, a pagan understanding, immerse themselves in Platonic doctrine, or a combination of all three.
But more than anything else, Cadman’s Gambit is the story of man’s quest for immortality. Every major character either desires it – in spirituality or actuality – or already has tasted a hint of it. It is one of the saddest theological plotlines I’ve come across, and each key player is, in their own way, selfish to a fault. In an existence where death is all around them, in the form of plague or warfare or strange, bio-engineered beasts, rather than trying to survive, they attempt to cheat death.
Which is why Deacon Shader, the warrior monk (and how great of a contradiction is that?), means so much to the story. He is flawed, cranky, violent, and stubborn, a man set in his ways who wants to change but can’t. Because of this, he reflects each and every person I’ve ever known…though he’s way cooler, and stronger, than the average man. Let’s just call him an “ideal human,” which is a fantastic description because of how imperfect he is. Prior has definitely created a conundrum of a story here, and he couldn’t have chosen a better figurehead to anchor it.
The mystery in the tale abounds. What’s up with the hidden, underground tunnels? What’s a “technocracy?” Why do so many people, when exposed to the deity-like entities (or are they?) that save the world from itself, end up living pretty much forever? He also has the courage to introduce magic, only to pull back and suggest, in a brilliant piece of storytelling, that there’s no such thing as magic at all. Just like the rest of the story, it’s a grand negation, and one that can make a reader’s head spin…in a good way, of course.
There is more than theory and world-building at work here. There is actual emotion and real, honest-to-goodness human relationships. Shader’s love for the girl he can’t have, his understudy’s obsession with the same, a dwarf named Shadrach’s fixation on the woman who would be his mother, the religious elite’s love of Ain, their godhead, or Dr. Cadman’s (the main antagonist) love of, well, himself. (I don’t want to spoil anything here, but let’s just say Cadman is a near-flawless villain. You’ll love him.)
The fight scenes in this book are extremely well executed, even if they may be few and far between. Just like everything else at work here, this is a contradiction, for the action acts as a break in the dialogue and philosophic musings instead of the other way around, which is usually the case. Also, there are little Easter eggs thrown in for those of us who still exist in the 21st century, as some of the “immortal” characters reflect upon events and locales from their past, letting we the readers know that, yes, this strange land was once not only very much like ours, but was ours.
Oh, and I’d be remiss to say that, for the first time ever, the map at the beginning of the book was not only well-made, but necessary to the plot! Go figure. I’ve always been one to never look at them, thinking them superfluous. Not here, my friends. No, if it weren’t for that map, I would’ve been lost.
In fact, I can say in all honesty that the only thing I think might hold this novel back is the fact it’s almost too smart for its own good. The language is dense, the plot sometimes convoluted. You really have to read each and every word, to take in each minute detail presented, to truly understand what you’re reading. I think there may be some folks who may not appreciate it, though there’s nothing wrong with that.
I, on the other hand, loved it. Cadman’s Gambit is a work of pure intellect, taking the best facets of fantasy, science fiction, and philosophy, and mixing it all together into a genus all its own. It's surprisingly humorous in parts, and the Kantian undertones of consciousness as it relates to time and space resounded with me greatly. I couldn’t put it down, though I took my time with it, wanting to bathe myself in every word, every turn of a phrase.
Yup, that’s right. My Year’s Best list just had a new book jump to the top. D.P. Prior’s book is that good. He has a lot to say, and one hell of a story to tell. In my opinion, you should take him up on that journey. Now.
Plot - 10
Characters - 10
Voice - 10
Execution - 10
Personal Enjoyment – 10
Overall – 50/50 (5.0/5)
Purchase Cadman's Gambit in Ebook format at: