Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Best Laid Plans (Shader Book II) by D.P. Prior

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sequels are a tricky business. I consider it a rarity when books actually get better after a fantastic opening volume. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three series that hold this distinction: King’s The Dark Tower, Dalglish’s Shadowdance Trilogy, and of course the Harry Potter books.

In other words, with Best Laid Plans: Shader Book II, D.P. Prior has joined some pretty select company.

Best Laid Plans picks up the story of the events on Sahul (and in other, more surreal locales) with the characters in dire straits. The undead army of the liche Dr. Cadman has overwhelmed Sarum, the Templum fleet is approaching Sahul, and Deacon Shader, our hero, is, well, dead…none of which will stay true for very long.

To say this book has a busy plot would be an understatement. At my count, there are at least nine storylines going on at once: Deacon’s experience in the afterlife, the struggles of the White Order, the survival of those trapped in Sarum, Cadman’s angst and rise to efforts to retain power, Maldark the dwarf’s guilt over his past, the dreamer Huntsman’s continuing education of Rhiannon’s brother Sammy, Sektis Gandaw’s quest to assemble the statue of Eingana and begin the unweaving, Shadrak’s growing importance to the whole (possibly) preordained events unfolding, Shader’s resurrection and subsequent quest, and Emperor Hagalle’s double-handed dealings. Throw into this mix vast battle sequences, and you have a piece of literature that could very well have become disjointed and confusing in a lesser author’s hands.

Yet Prior is up to the task in this opus, and the narrative he builds is a fascinating one. There is mythology and philosophy, questions as to the nature of reality and time, scathing observations on government and religion, and even a few references to modern-day events and objects that bring this beyond the realm of just a great epic fantasy adventure. All of these tropes and points meld together, creating a work that is exciting while at the same time thought-provoking.

This book questions everything. While there are certainly protagonists and antagonists, these characters are as far from being cardboard cutouts that you can get. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the way Prior allows us, through differing points of view, to see inside the minds of virtually every major character and allows us to develop at least an inkling of empathy for them. Even the despicable Cadman and the perhaps more-despicable Gaston (who performed a virtually unforgivable act in the first book) are given time to show they’re real, flesh-and-blood people with doubts and fears and even remorse. It allows them, the characters, the move the plot forward rather than the plot moving them, which for a work that deals a lot in fate and preordination is a feat in and of itself.

The battle sequences were well thought-out and exciting—much more so than in the first book—and particularly the scenes that take place at sea, while Deacon is attempting to find the albino who stole his pieces of Eingana, are captivating. They’re a mixture of new and old, a melding of science fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy that is truly original and awe-inspiring in scope. There were very few times where I became confused, and even on those rare occasions all it took was a small step backward to realize that I’d simply missed a sentence or misunderstood the usage of a certain word or phrase.

In conclusion, I can say that Best Laid Plans not only matches Cadman’s Gambit, the first book in the series, but enhances it. This is a book chock full of imagery both beautiful and hideous, with a mixture of genuine comedy in places to break up the despair and tension. It was a beast of a story to read, one I didn’t want to put down. And by the time I reached the cliffhanger ending, I wished more than anything that I had the third book on hand so I could get right to it.

That’s right, folks, D.P. Prior has crafted a wonderful mythology that goes perfectly with his spot-on writing. This is a series that should be savored like a fine scotch, one whose sweetness lingers in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed.

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