Review: Cast in Shadow (Chronicles of Elantra #1) by Michelle Sagara

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Seven years ago Kaylin fled the crime-riddled streets of Nightshade, knowing that something was after her. Children were being murdered — and all had the same odd markings that mysteriously appeared on her own skin…

Since then, she’s learned to read, she’s learned to fight and she’s become one of the vaunted Hawks who patrol and police the City of Elantra. Alongside the winged Aerians and immortal Barrani, she’s made a place for herself, far from the mean streets of her birth.

But children are once again dying, and a dark and familiar pattern is emerging, Kaylin is ordered back into Nightshade with a partner she knows she can’t trust, a Dragon lord for a companion and a device to contain her powers — powers that no other human has. Her task is simple — find the killer, stop the murders… and survive the attentions of those who claim to be her allies!


This was a re-read, but I can’t remember when I last read the first book of this particular series. I know I first read it years ago, and while I had a general idea of the plot, the actual details were hazy. All of that was just to say that I already knew I liked this book, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it, even knowing the major twists and having a fair idea of the relationships between characters.

Kaylin is a flawed and immature hero, with a long way still to go on her journey of understanding and improving herself. She is thoroughly sympathetic, but also far from the confident, capable detective so often found in fiction. Cast in Shadow lays out Kaylin’s tragic past in broad strokes, as she and the other characters in the series work to stop a series of crimes intertwined with the history of the city, and Kaylin herself.

Severn is a fairly unique supporting character, and his interactions with Kaylin provide much of the emotional nuance in the novel. I’m never quite certain I understand all of what Severn and Kaylin feel for each other, as indeed, Kaylin herself is portrayed as being confused. I’m glad that there is no romantic subplot for Kaylin in this book, as I think it would undermine the seriousness of the crimes she’s investigating, and the painful memories linked to these occurrences.

Nightshade is another amazing side character whose backstory and motivations remain unclear. Marcus is a fun take on the typical angry police captain, and the Hawklord is a strange combination of boss/father figure, that somehow works in the mashup of job and life that Kaylin is shown to have. Tiamaris, Teela and Tain are not overly developed in this book, but they (among countless others) help to develop Kaylin as a complete, vibrant person in a world that is shown to be the same. I always like when a character (particularly if they are women) is shown to be a whole person, not simply in relation to her love interest, or the plot.

The magic system in these novels is as varied as the races and people involved, but the use of power always seems consistent, and doesn’t take away from the tension and believability of the novel. The plot relies heavily on magic centred crimes, but the final confrontation involves more than just a magical shoot-out. Kaylin’s own abilities are left largely unexplained, but again, this is due more to Kaylin’s own lack of knowledge than to a frustratingly vague explanation.

The Chronicles of Elantra is set in a nuanced, detailed fantasy world, despite the bulk of it being set within the bounds of a single city. If you have no patience for slow, intricate world-building, you may wish to look elsewhere. However, if you enjoy learning as you go in a world where class systems, racial divides, gender politics, crime and historical implications are included and considered, Cast in Shadow may well be for you.

This book allows a lot of room for interpretation, and I fully expect that even having more than ten other books in the series, there is nuances of meaning in Cast in Shadow that I am missing. There is also a lot that, even after these books, is not made clear, so again—if you want quick, explicit backstory or character development, you might not enjoy the slow pace of this high fantasy book.

If you read Charlie N Holmberg’s Smoke and Summons but wanted a grittier, more mature version, Cast in Shadow would be perfect for you. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon might enjoy this series, as would those who enjoyed the political intrigue and depth of detail in NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Cast in Shadow is a classic high fantasy novel, with a police-procedural twist, and any who enjoy character rich plot and detailed fantasy worlds will enjoy this novel.

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