Empress Li is out of favour at court. Foreign-born and past her prime, she is to be set aside. But she won’t go quietly. With nothing left to lose, Li will do anything to stop Emperor Lan signing a secret alliance that could tear the empire apart. Yet when her life is threatened, old mistakes come back to haunt her and only a three-year-old boy can change the course of history.
With everything at stake, could an innocent child be the best assassin?
This novella may only be 102 pages long, but each and ever page of In Shadows We Fall drips with palace politics, intrigue, and deception. Madson’s Aurealis award-winning prequel to the Vengeance trilogy, rips along at a blistering pace leaving the reader no time to pause and catch their breath. Let alone stop to reflect as, in a pitched battle of wits, the Empress Li plots the downfall of her God-Emperor husband, the Emperor Lan.
Madson literally drops us straight into the heart of this story from the outset, with the Empress plotting against her cheating husband with two of her trusted guards, Cheng and Koto. And before we know what’s really happening, Li has murder two people in the dead of night. I mean, come on, this woman really wants revenge.
“My knife failed to glint dramatically in the light, but it did not fail to pierce the soft skin of the man’s neck. His throat offered resistance like aged meat, but I had no time for finesse. I ripped the blade through it, spraying blood. His eyes opened. He wheezed. Bubbled. Failed. Crimson spilled upon the page before I could snatch it away, though snatch it away I did. Just as wide, fearful eyes found me they began to roll back, though whether he recognised my face I would never know.”
Just as quickly, we begin to understand why—not only has the Emperor found a replacement for his wife in the form of a younger more amenable paramour, one he even flouts in open court to humiliate her. He’s plotting to betray his own country, using mercenaries, thereby plunging Kisia into a prolonged war with their northern neighbour, Chiltae. A war Li knows her country can ill afford to wage, let alone its people.
In Shadows We Fall delivers brilliantly on both world building and plot, and while others have said the weak link is characterisation. I beg to differ. I think the whole concept is one long character study, done at its best, I might add. In which we get to grips with Empress Li, her motives, her pain, the turmoil, and more to the point, just what she’s willing to do and sacrifice in order to bring down Lan. And if that means using her 3 year-old son as an assassin, then so be it.
The writing is effortless and at all times we are fully engaged in events as they move at a brisk pace. Everything unfolds in Li’s last few days in the palace, to quite the unexpected, explosive end, in which fate has the final word.
For me, In Shadows We Fall is a masterful exposition of a moment in time, encapsulated in blood-dripping violence and intrigue, that will leave you breathless at the end.
IN SHADOWS WE FALL
Cloudburst Books, 2017
Paperback, 102 pages