Today I am delighted to be sharing my (very belated) review for The Shadow Gate by L.L. MacRae, the second book in the Dragon Spirits series. I have to say though, I’m almost glad I lost my original review (turns out knocking a laptop off a chair is not good for its health…), because I had so much to say about this one, although I don’t think I’ve done this fantastic book justice.
You can find my review for book one – The Iron Crown here.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Opening the shadow gate is the only way Fenn’s memories can be restored—and with them, his life and family.
It could also destroy the world.
Guided by dragon spirit Hassen and manipulated by the Myr, Fenn fights the corruption spreading through Tassar—and himself—in an attempt to find his family. Separated from his allies and unable to trust even his own mind, the arduous journey takes its toll.
Far from home and reunited with her sister, Calidra battles to keep her loved ones safe. But when the fickle loyalties of dragon spirits shifts, and darkness lurks around every corner, running from her fears is no longer an option.
And in the far south, consequences of the past catch up with those fighting for their freedom.
There are Dragons.
That’s it, that’s the review…
Wait…right series, wrong book – although it does remain true. THERE ARE DRAGONS. Dragons, and so much more!
The Shadow Gate was one of my most anticipated books for 2023 after thoroughly enjoying The Iron Crown, and by the spirits this book did not disappoint. Have you ever stood at a cliff edge on a windy day, with the waves crashing against the rocks below, teetering between exhilaration and the looming awareness of what will happen if you fall, well this book captures that feeling perfectly.
Firstly, though a shout out as always for the maps at the beginning – which in a story that follows three main groups, and deals with shifting events that are affecting an entire world are incredibly useful. Then there is the useful summary of the events that happened in The Iron Crown, which is a great refresher, especially as we are dropped into the story in the immediate aftermath of those events and from there this book soars just as surely as the Dragons.
There is no finding our footing. No, relief. Instead, we are confronted with the aftermath of large scale Myrish attack, and events, past and present beginning to collide and set in motion one of the most devious, world-spanning manipulations I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Tessar has always been a vividly realised world, with MacRae’s worldbuilding very much being one of my favourite aspects of the series, but in The Shadow Gate we really get to experience it as a world in motion, with each individual piece of the puzzle adding something vital to the story that’s unfolding. We get to see the larger scale of this in the relief efforts in the wake of various attacks, and through the work of the Inquisitors and the different cantons; and even in terms of geography, as we sail, walk and soar through this world, across oceans, through mountains and forest, and even through dreams and internal visions. We also get to see the individual and personal pieces, from the relationships being rekindled, to devotion taking on many forms, and characters making choices – good and bad – for intensely personal reasons that will spiral far beyond themselves.
What connects all these pieces, and really immerses us in the events, and the consequences is that we are experiencing it all alongside the POV characters. We are reunited with those from the first book and gain some fantastic POVs from Selys and Kaio. Each character has their own motivations, their own experiences that can colour their view of the Spirits and the Myr, and their own weaknesses, the cracks through which that masterful manipulation can be set to work. But it is these characters who open this world to us, giving us roots in all the different factions that coming into play, and tying us emotionally into the story, so that when we’re on that cliff edge with them, their choices beat out in our hearts.
It was great to return to the familiar characters. Apollo remains a firm favourite and spirits do I feel for him and the choice – or lack of choice – he has at the beginning, and his strength to keep going, and finally to see how much he is willing to give to protect not just those he loves, but those around him. I also very much appreciated his relationship with Nadja, who is probably my favourite of the secondary characters. However, I do think that Calidra stole the show in this book, and it was her development and storyline that really had me hooked (and wanting to let Furyn face Miroth head on…for reasons). MacRae deals with Calidra’s mental and emotional health brilliantly, and we get to see how she has been shaped by her childhood in many different ways, and the exploration of her relationship with her sister being renewed was definitely one of my favourite elements of the story; and seeing how both she and Malora are being forced to confront their childhood, which was shared and yet so different, while shaping the childhood of the next generation was fascinating.
Fenn remains a character who gives me mixed feelings, and there were moments when I wanted to call him ten kinds of idiot and slap him upside the head. Yet, at the same time I can utterly understand and emphasize with the ‘choice’ he made, and his story arc was compelling, and possibly the path that left me wondering the most about where MacRae is going to take him in the third book.
Torsten was a character that intrigued me greatly in The Iron Crown, is stripped bare in this book. We get to see him laid low and stripped of so much that made him who and how he was. Which really is one of the many things MacRae does brilliantly with her characters, letting us see the building blocks – even those that stretch before and outside the boundaries of the story – that have led each one to where they are now. Torsten is not a good man by any stretch of the imagination, although I do like that he has certain limits and morals and awareness that there are others who would do worse; and yet particularly in the latter chapters of the book, I also find myself feeling for him, which tells to the strength of how MacRae has written the bonds between the spirits and their bonded, and this character.
Selys really steps up in this book, and in my mind at least she is the most balanced of the Spirit Blessed – we see how she honours Neros and that bond, but also that she questions it. It made for an interesting dynamic and made the fact that they could be so powerful together feel that much more natural and balanced and is fitting for a woman who previously led an ocean-bound warband and had to live in balance with the ocean. It also made the fear the Spirits were feeling in the face of the Myrish artifacts and plotting that much more potent, because through Selys and Neros we really got to feel the weight of that. I also liked that this fed into the dynamic with our other new POV character, Selys’ brother Kaio who now rules the warband. There is a delicate balance between these two characters, not least because he now holds the position she had, but also because of the role her Spirit had played in their family’s death. It makes for a volatile mix at time, like oil and water, and I like how MacRae plays both side of that, along with the quieter moments of connection, the familiarity that lingers between siblings even after time spent apart.
And that, that is where this book really shines. Yes, the individual characters are all fantastic in their own ways, and the secondary characters are just as beautifully written, but it is the relationships that make it, and we are given a dazzling array here, really capturing how varied people are. We have strained parental relationships, alongside those that are willing to do anything in order to protect their children, we have sibling relationships that can strained by the worst of forces but are a connection that remains regardless. We see past and present colliding, whether remembered or forgotten. We see loyalty and treachery, manipulation and simple, unwavering acceptance of someone as they are. We see people who are thrown together by circumstance, those who choose to remain together regardless of the threats thrown at them, and those desperately trying to reunite with their loved ones.
It’s wonderful, and what is interesting is what is the book’s greatest strength is also the characters’ greatest weakness. Because it is those relationships that often drive the characters to doing their best, and their worst. We see Fenn desperately trying to regain his memories about who he was and who his family are regardless of the cost, we see Calidra confronting Torsten to protect her niece and being forced to confront her struggle with her mother, and through it her bond with her sister. We see the lengths that Apollo and Malora, a world apart are willing to go to for their child. And we see Evarine’s desperation to get her husband back.
And we see how that desperation, those desires are manipulated.
Which brings me to what I personally loved the most about this book, and that is that it is a magnificent blend of almost prophecy, manipulation and choice.
‘Ah. You would give your life for hers. You creatures care so much for your fleeting time here.’
I say almost prophecy, because there are words and warnings and awareness of what is to come. A knowledge that underlies everything, we see it in the awareness of the artifacts, in the fear that Neros displays to one of those, to the previous events with the Citrine Key. But is it set in stone? Is there a chosen one? No…not exactly. What there are – and what brings me back to that devious, world-spanning manipulation – are pawns, but even that is not so clear cut. These are not characters without agency, although some are deeper in the manipulations than others, but MacRae has given us characters who can follow their hearts, weigh the consequence and make choices that will stand against the looming threat or loom into it, and yet at the same time, they are very much dancing within the weave of a web of manipulation; and there are several moments were my jaw just dropped as the pieces fell into place. What that gives us is that exhilarating cliff feeling, because we’re so caught up in their struggles and choices, only to find us on the precipice as events unfold and truths are revealed.
‘The Myr want me to do something. A dragon wants you to do something. It’s all the same.’
What I also particularly love about this world that MacRae has given us, that it is not black and white. That right and wrong, black and white, are all cast in shades of grey, or at least appear to be. We have the Myr who are clearly envisaged as the threat here, and rightfully so for the most part – we have seen their curses, their manipulation and in The Shadow Gate we get to see that darkness roll forth. Yet, are they that different from the Dragon Spirits who can be as spurious in their choice of who to bless and who to curse? Who can manipulate and use their bonded, and hurt in their own way? What I find particularly interesting that of the two it is the Myr who seem to truly understand human nature, rather than the Dragons who have been bonding with humans for so long – it is the Myr that see those weakness borne of relationships, and individual desires and use that to move people as they will. It’s not completely different from the Spirits – we see this with Jisyel and Chyram – but it feels like there is more give and take, more needed from both sides.
I do like that we got to see more of the bonded relationships between the blessed and their Dragon Spirits throughout this book, it added a lot of depth to that aspect of the worldbuilding and gave us more of an understanding of the Dragon Spirits themselves. The worldbuilding around them was already fantastic, and MacRae takes that to another level, we get to see them at their strongest and their weakest, we get to see that they are not above the corruption that threatens the people of the world… and we get a truly epic fight that was one of, if not my favourite scene in the book! Alongside this, we get to learn more about the Myr, their magic, and their goals – which was something I was very much looking forward to, because I was fascinated with from the first book, and as much as I love the dragons…I want more and more of the Myr and considering how the book ended that’s a wish that’s likely to be granted.
The Shadow Gate has taken everything that was already fantastic in The Iron Crown to a completely different level; and it was fantastic to see all the different threads coming together. This series remains incredibly character driven, but this book really captured the feeling of a world in danger, there was menace lurking even in the quieter moments. And that ending…and the epilogue. MacRae has created a ridiculously satisfying middle book, and left me craving more, and I can’t wait for The Broken Sword.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.