Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review: Shadows of Asphodel by Karen Kincy

cover art for Shadows of Asphodel, featuring a young woman standing alone in a large cobbled square, drawn sword in hand. Above her, the faces of a woman and a man are superimposed over the night sky
Ardis, a mercenary working for the Archmages of Vienna, isn't exactly thrilled to find a young necromancer bleeding to death. She's even less impressed when Wendel swears fealty to her, making it impossible for her to claim a hefty ransom for him. As romantic tensions mount between them, though, Ardis becomes entangled in Wendel’s vendetta against the men who've exploited him all his life--one of whom may be the father Ardis has longed to meet for all of hers.

Y’all know I’m leery of self published work, but I’m so glad I took a chance on this one. SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL contains a staggering amount of awesome, my friends. You’ve gotta get your hands on it.

What inspired me to give this one a go, you ask? Karen Kincy has traditionally published three young adult novels (OTHER, BLOODBORN, and FOXFIRE), but she chose to Kickstart SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL so she could get it into readers’ hands a little more quickly than traditional channels allow. It’s easy to see, too, why self publishing was a good choice for this particular book. SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL is best categorized as New Adult dieselpunk fantasy--something many publishing industry folks claim doesn’t exist. Right now, traditionally published NA is mostly limited to contemporary romance. From what I’ve seen, people are writing NA fantasy and science fiction, but it’s a hard sell and is unlikely to really take off for another few years.

In the traditional publishing arena, that is. Self publishing allows authors to tell these sorts of stories right now, without waiting for the establishment to catch up.

I’m mighty glad Kincy didn’t wait. As I said, this book is fabulous.

Kincy wastes no time in establishing her two leads with a few choice details and the sort of chemistry-laden banter I eat straight from the jar. The reader immediately gets a good sense of who Ardis and Wendel are--which is to say, it's clear from the get-go they're both awesome, complex people with a lot to offer the character-oriented reader with a taste for action and adventure.

I'll take a double helping, please.

I’m sure I shan’t spoil anything when I tell you romantic sparks fly between them. While their relationship kindles quickly enough to qualify as instalove, I hasten to add that it doesn’t feel rushed. There’s genuine chemistry from the very moment they meet, so everything that follows feels like a logical consequence of that initial attraction.

It’s worth noting, too, that the book takes place in an alternate world that’s managed to delay, but probably not prevent, World War I. Romances always do proceed at a quicker pace in wartime, since nobody knows where they'll be in a day or three. I oughta tell you, too, this one gets steamy in no time flat. Kincy never fades to black, so keep that in mind if you’re squeamish about the sexy times. Some skimming may be required.

Aside from the romantic angle, both characters are fully realized people in their own right. Both Ardis and Wendel have believable motivations and plenty of fascinating backstory which Kincy feeds us in delectably tantalizing scraps as the story rolls along. I was always wicked eager to learn more about them, and the revelations dropped exactly when I wanted them most. I’m thrilled with Wendel’s frank bisexuality, too. Let’s have more bisexual love interests!

The leads are far from the only compelling characters. I was particularly taken with Konstantin, a young archmage Ardis meets as she transports Wendel to Vienna. Narrative conventions tell us Konstantin ought to fill one of two time honoured roles, if not both, but his true place in the story is far more interesting. I like him very much.

And HOLY ACTION, Batman! There’s never a dull moment in SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL. The story brims with well-choreographed fight scenes, simmering tension, and an abiding emphasis on forward movement, be it physical or emotional. Best of all, most of the physical action directly contributes to the characters’ emotional development. Kincy either shows us how they react to certain situations, thus increasing our understanding of their motivations and backstory, or she shoves them into a new frame of reference and leaves them to sort themselves out. It’s designed to make you want just one more chapter... and okay, maybe another after that... or you could just finish the book right now, if you want. What else are you doing with your evening?

As much as I loved the characters and the nonstop action--and oh, did I ever love them!--it was the worldbuilding that really hooked me. SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL takes place in an early 20th century Europe where magic is common and everyone knows war is coming. The Archmages of Vienna have attempted to stop the conflict by placing the continent under a spell that effectively disables gunpowder. This has delayed things, but everyone has been so quick to adapt to bladed weapons and flamethrowers that the relative peace won’t hold for long--something of which all the characters are keenly aware.

This world enforces no separation between magic and technology, which feed into each other. SQUEE! To be frank, I’m sick of stories where magic fades to make room for "progress." (Oh my god, Death of Magic stories. Just die already.) I’d much rather read about worlds where magic contributes to progress, so you can bet I did the happy dance when I realized what Kincy was up to. The archmages use contraptions to help focus their magic, and they actively search for new ways to combine magic and technology. Most of the applications we see on the page are martial, what with war looming and all, but one can well imagine technomagical innovation flourishing in all areas once the conflict is over.

There are indications, too, that there’s a certain amount of opposition to technomancy. Wendel, whose magic is decidedly intuitive and organic, scoffs at what technomancers like Konstantin do. This raises questions as to what is or is not acceptable as the archmages develop martial technomancy, and paves the way for more tensions as the series progresses.

Speaking of series, I'm sorry I didn't read it in time to get in on the Kickstarter for the sequel. Oh well. I'll still buy STORMS OF LAZARUS as soon as it hits Amazon (which, I should add, is the only store where SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL is available in e-book).

Oh, friends. I feel like I haven’t said nearly enough about this wonderful, wonderful book. If I haven't made it clear, I recommend it to you with my whole heart. It has awesome characters, a steamy and heartfelt romance, a unique world, and some delicious magic. If you’re at all interested in early 20th century historical fantasy, you’ll eat it right up.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned, especially with an indie title like this one. If you're in search of another way to read SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.


  1. Are "Death of Magic" stories a thing? I think I've completely missed that niche of fantasy fiction, which tells me that I haven't been reading enough speculative fiction this year. MOAR FANTASY.

    (I'm currently reading The Goblin Emperor and Dreams of Gods and Monsters, so that's a good amount of fantasy right at the moment.)

    1. People who are not Jenny: beware of potential spoilers for every and all book in the history of the world. I can't tell you which examples I'm gonna cite because I need to talk about endings, and I assume most of you don't want to know how books end until you've read up to that point your own self.

      (Jenny: I always avoid giving concrete examples of this sort of thing, but you're the one person I know who doesn't care about spoilers, so yay! I can cite particular books!)

      I don't think Death of Magic stories are as common now, but there was a time when they were a Big Thing, particularly with children's fantasy. Prydain is the one that really sticks with me, mainly because it pissed me off the most. Everyone has this big magical adventure, and they do wondrous things, and then magic toddles off at the end to make way for "progress." ARGH. It breaks my heart whenever I so much as think of it. And I think of it fairly often, since the Chronicles of Prydain were my favourite books for many, many years.

      Narnia falls under the wider umbrella, too, since each of the children has to abandon all hope of magic as they (allegedly) get too old for it. Ugh.

      And of course, LOTR is the Death of Magic story. All the magical folks go across the ocean at the end so everyone can learn to get along without them. Yay, progress!

      Or not.

      I'm inclined to blame Tolkien for the whole thing, really, since it's probably safe to say most people who write Death of Magic stories are copying either Tolkien or one of his disciples.

      I think the theme is so prominent in children's fantasy in particular because our culture has this idea that children need an explanation for why books are different from the real world. These stories tell young readers that yeah, okay, maybe people used to be able to do magic, but it'd have held us back if we'd kept it so we let it fade away.

      As I said, this attitude pisses me off. For one thing, it doesn't give young readers credit for being able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. For another, it's just plain heartbreaking. When I was a kid, I always wanted to think that maybe I couldn't live around magic, but at least my favourite characters could. It ripped my heart out when I'd reach the end of a book and find that nope, the characters were gonna be in the same magic-free boat as me (but minus such luxuries as running water and central heating).

      I can only think of two Death of Magic stories I've actually approved of. The first is Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, where it's clear that magic, which is predicated on slavery, actually is holding society back. The other is season eight of BTVS, where magic dies and the characters have to keep on trucking.

      I think fully half my beef with the Death of Magic is that it always comes at the end, so that's it. Magic is gone for good. With Buffy, there's a) the promise of lots of interesting storylines where characters who've become dependent on magic have to find other ways to do things and b) the hope that maybe magic could seep back in somehow.

      So, yeah. I hate it. I don't want magic to die to make room for technology. I want technology and magic to work in concert, like they do in SHADOWS OF ASPHODEL. I find that sort of thing much more interesting.