Review: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington


It has been twenty years since the god-like Augurs were overthrown and killed. Now, those who once served them – the Gifted – are spared only because they have accepted the rebellion’s Four Tenets, vastly limiting their own powers.

As a young Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war lost before he was even born. He and others like him are despised. But when Davian discovers he wields the forbidden powers of the Augurs, he sets in motion a chain of events that will change everything.

To the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is . . .

And in the far north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated, begins to stir.”

I’ve been aware of The Shadow of What Was Lost (book one of The Licanius Trilogy) by James Islington for some time now, particularly after I learned that it was one of those “unicorn books” that had been self-published before being picked up by Orbit and rereleased, but for one reason or another it’s tumbled its way down my TBR pile until recently. When I learned that the sequel, An Echo of Things to Come, was on the horizon, I cleared some time and finally dove into this 700-page monster.

The story is a heroic epic fantasy, a coming-of-age tale focused primarily on three protoganists: Davian, Asha and Wirr. Four if you count Caeden, a young man who wakes up without any memories of his past and must rediscover himself as the story progresses. And Islington’s debut benefits from this (relatively) select number of POVs because it keeps the narrative intimate, even as the scope increases and the stakes start to climb. All the protagonists are well-written and engaging – particularly Davian and Asha – and I didn’t suffer any disappointment at switching POV which too often can be a symptom of multi-POV epic fantasy.

The narrative progresses at a rapid pace, too, drawing you deeper into the world at every turn. Even at 700 pages, the novel never feels like a chore to get through, and Islington doesn’t waste any time needlessly repeating events through different characters’ eyes – he keeps things constantly in motion, which is a welcome approach. The tone of the story is firmly heroic epic fantasy, too; a callback to earlier works before the emergence of grimdark which seems to be the current trend. That’s not to say there aren’t dark moments, or violence, or atrocity, only that the novel doesn’t wallow in that. Instead it leans heavily on notions of adventure and morality to craft its tone.

Now this type of story can often live or die on its worldbuilding, and Islington doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The world feels fully formed and tangible, and the history and magic are woven so deeply into the everyday world and narrative events that it’s easy to become wonderfully lost in everything. It was a joy to learn the rules of this magic system (though there remain some aspects yet to explore), and Islington does a fantastic job of driving the narrative within these bounds without it seeming contrived. There’s a deft balance between mystery and discovery, too – Islington reveals enough to ensure things are interesting and make sense, and where he doesn’t it comes across as added mystique drawing you further into the story – and he does this with enough skill that you can trust the necessary answers will be forthcoming in the next two books.

There have been many comparisons between TSoWWL and Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels, but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read Jordan’s epic series. Still, my understanding is that Islington reaches for a similar tone while attempting to avoid that series’ pitfalls by giving due attention to characterisation and keeping the story reined in as a planned trilogy. I can’t say whether this is true in comparison to Jordan’s work, but I do think this novel stands on its own merits in this regard and is set to be an assured trilogy.

You may be thinking, okay so is this a four-star read then? It’s a good read but, on paper, nothing revolutionary seems to be happening here. But everything that works well individually with this novel comes together exceptionally well, making for a fantastic read. And, part-way through the first half of this novel, something happens that kicks the narrative stakes and scope of this story into mind-blowing territory. It’s not really a spoiler, as Islington has spoken openly about this aspect of his work in interviews, but (and you may not want to read the rest of this paragraph regardless)… the story deals with time travel in a way that feels true and organic and just plain awesome. It’s like you’re playing chess and loving it, only to suddenly discover on your next move that you’re actually playing three-dimensional chess and all the things you were loving before are now happening on multiple tiers at once.

So, overall I give The Shadow of What Was Lost five stars. It’s well-crafted, wonderfully intricate and complex epic fantasy with the pacing of a thriller. It’s largely a coming-of-age story for all of its protagonists, with a tone that leans heavily toward adventure and heroism – refreshing in today’s fantasy landscape. I was reading the Kindle version, but loved it so much that I went out and bought the hardback straight away, along with the sequel in hardback as well. James Islington is definitely an author to watch, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the sequel.

An incredible read.

You can learn more about James Islington here, and The Shadow of What Was Lost is available from here. I read the UK Kindle edition.

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