The Shadow Gate is Book Two in the Dragon Spirits series by L.L. MacRae, following up on her excellent first volume, The Iron Crown, which was a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s 7th Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO7).
Grimdark fans will find much to love in The Shadow Gate, which takes the series in a decidedly darker direction. L.L. MacRae also presents an intriguing treatment of gray morality across several of her characters, including the lead protagonist, Fenn, an amnesiac who is trying to recover his lost memories and locate his family, if he still has one. Fenn learns that he is touched by an ancient evil known as the Myr, and he might be playing an unwitting role in their return to the Realm of Tassar. MacRae adeptly builds layers of complexity in Fenn’s character, who is both a sympathetic and potentially dangerous lead.
The Myr themselves are a shadowy threat, haunting the land with death and destruction. L.L. MacRae’s descriptions of the Myr are shrouded in mystery and lore, reminding me of Patrick Rothfuss’s approach to the Chandrian in the Kingkiller Chronicle. Fortunately, the Myr get significantly more page time in The Shadow Gate than the Chandrian have seen thus far in the Kingkiller Chronicle.
L.L. MacRae maintains a fast, even pace throughout The Shadow Gate. She also ups the ante on action, starting from the opening scene which depicts the terrible aftermath of a Myrish attack at Foxmouth, highlighting the death and ruin brought by this otherworldly evil.
The Shadow Gate switches perspectives among several vividly drawn point-of-view characters. Beyond Fenn, my favorite characters from The Iron Crown are back: the hotheaded Calidra and her partner, the loving and supportive Jisyel, whose relationship was a highlight of the first book. Also returning are Torsten, the grand inquisitor who is another masterclass in gray morality; Apollo, a former thief looking to build a better life; Selys, a priestess with competing loyalties; and Varlot, a former soldier trying to escape his violent past.
MacRae’s worldbuilding is phenomenal across both The Iron Crown and The Shadow Gate. This series is manna from heaven for dragon fans. The Shadow Gate features nine dragon spirits, powerful supernatural beings who appear in specific geographical areas such as forests or lakes and are dedicated to protecting their natural realms. The dragon spirits’ powers are channeled through the humans to whom they are bonded. The greatest of the dragon spirits is Toriaken, the enormous spirit of iron, who is bonded with Queen Surayo of the Iron Crown.
The Shadow Gate also brings back L.L. MacRae’s hyperintelligent griffins, who are large enough to carry several people on their backs during flight. Fans of Thiago Abdalla’s griffin-drenched Ashes of Avarin series will also love MacRae’s work.
Overall, The Shadow Gate is a spectacular tour de force in dark epic fantasy. The Dragon Spirits trilogy will conclude with Book Three of the series, The Broken Sword.