Thoughts: Promise of Shadows, by Justina Ireland

This book found its way onto my TBR list because a friend found it on Goodreads and the summary sounded like amazing, silly fun to fill the impending Kitty Norville-shaped hole in my life. I want to say it sounded “trashy”, but before I do I want to make it clear that to me, “trashy” means fun, easy to read, dramatic, audaciously pleasure-seeking (which I don’t mean to sound like an act of radical whateverism, just that I envy people who can write without embarrassment about angst and badassery and fun, a concept I find perfectly embodied in the phrase “super-hot Brazilian were-jaguar“). I hold good trashy novels in very high esteem. They take a lot of skill to write well, and I hate that “trashy” contains the word “trash” and that there’s no other good word that means the same.

Anyway, all this is moot because Promise of Shadows wasn’t very good.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Promise of Shadows reads like an early draft of a promising story; nor is it a lie to say that I had to check to make sure this wasn’t a self-published novel (it isn’t).

There are various large categories of “ugh” to cover, and because it’s been hardly any time since I was complaining about the Infernal Devices, let’s start with something totally new! I’m glad that I did give Cassandra Clare credit for her plotting, because my god, I missed her ability with suspense while reading this book. The story starts when Zephyr Mourning*, the main character, is serving time in Tartarus (the worst bit of the underworld) because of a crime she committed. This would be fine if the story didn’t lean so heavily on what happened before she was imprisoned, relying on flashbacks and Zephyr’s own muddled explanations of world-specific concepts and backstory. It would have been better just to have the story start a little earlier.

It sags horribly in the middle. In the beginning Zephyr is escaping from Tartarus, in the end she is fulfilling her destiny, and in the middle she is hanging around the house of an old family friend and literally doing nothing. She talks. She eats. She watches some reality shows (which ones? What are they about? Are they fun? We don’t know! Zephyr never bothers trying to get us to emotionally invest in her life!). She has frustrated romantic moments with the childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years.

Ireland is obviously trying to get the character development done here – it’s that sort of book. The story falls into a familiar shape: Girl learns she’s the subject of a prophecy, girl learns to harness her power, girl fulfils prophecy. The middle section should be full of training montages and character development and creating bonds and learning what she can do. You’d expect, from a very technical and mechanical point of view, to see a couple of skirmishes with the villain, some minor successes as the story goes on, the stakes to get bigger, the emotions to be heightened, the urgency to grow. That’s not to say every story should follow a template, but in a story where the main character has just broken out of prison and needs to learn to harness her dark magic and defeat the goddess Hera, you’d expect the main character to be doing something.

There are little hints of what should be happening. Zephyr and Tallon’s budding relationship and the obstacles between them (which are never fully explained, by the way, until they are essentially solved). Zephyr beginning to doubt her best prison buddy Cass’s loyalty (which never comes into play even a single time until Cass’s loyalty is undeniably proven). Someone comes to attack them once and Zephyr defeats them easily. This is pretty much all that happens in the whole middle third, and the lack of concrete things happening means that the character moments just float unanchored. It’s hard to feel like there’s a sense of progress, and it’s hard to really care when everything is happening in Zephyr’s head. She never really confronts Tallon about his mixed messages. She never calls Cass out for her vaguely suspicious behaviour. It ruins every chance of drama.

Even if the middle third was to be spent in Nanda’s house (Nanda being the old Harpy family friend, living in a town full of vaettir [basically demigods, half Aethereal and half mortal]) it could be done compellingly if Zephyr was slowly starting to doubt everyone around her, if she was learning to use the magic she was always told was an abomination, if she was getting in touch with her own darker side and learning how to be more responsible. But she does none of those things! I mean, she can use the magic by the end, but we never see her learning how to do it.

Zephyr’s deal is that she failed her Trials, seemingly the Harpy coming-of-age thing, which sounds dramatic but honestly seems to be just Harpy GCSEs, in which she was taught how to use “bright” magic, aether. She was rubbish at this, because unbeknownst to her, she’s a “shadow vaettir”, or a vaettir (I think this is the singular and plural anyway) who has an affinity to erebos, the shadow magic, instead of the more common aether affinity. So we know that vaettir have to be taught to use magic, at least in a controlled fashion. We know that uncontrolled use of her dark magic is what got Zephyr put in prison in the first place. But we never get to see her learning how to do it. Basically, she decides that OK, she’ll use her erebos, and then she can just magically (lol) use it. It’s not particularly satisfying for the reader, especially in a character who’s really preoccupied with the idea that she’s a failure. We want to see her work hard and succeed, not just skip to the end.

The voice of the story is also not great. Promise of Shadows is written in first person present tense, a tricky perspective at the best of times, and it’s not a good fit for this story. Zephyr’s voice is not particularly vivid. She gets the occasional playful or badass line (only a few hits in a lot of misses here – the story is peppered with short sharp sentences on their own lines that don’t sound as good as the author seems to think they do) but most of the time she’s just blandly describing things that happen, even when she’s being beaten up or watching people be murdered in front of her very eyes. She describes outside things when she should really be feeling inside things.

Not only that, but she’s not interested in a lot of the story herself, so those things don’t get described. When Cass is trying to explain to her about Rift cycles and something that explains how to travel between worlds (I think?) Zephyr straight up tells us she doesn’t care and zones out, so the reader doesn’t get to find out either. She spends a lot of time at the beginning not being curious about things, and though that’s an interesting place to start for an irresponsible heroine, the rest of the story really needs her to become responsible at some point, and she never does. She doesn’t plan anything herself – that’s Cass’s job, and later Tallon’s – and she doesn’t pay attention, and the result of this is that the reader misses out on story that they shouldn’t – and wouldn’t have if it was written in third person. And because Zephyr is so apathetic, the descriptions we do get are a bit lacklustre as well.

The worldbuilding is frustratingly incomplete and given to us in dribs and drabs, so for the beginning of the book which is set in Tartarus I had no idea what sort of place Zephyr came from or how to visualise it. Greek mythology seems to underpin the world, but they also have TVs and malls, but the last time Zephyr saw her mother was when she was heading off to battle with a claymore over her shoulder. I found it difficult to imagine all these things coexisting, and to be honest the book never showed us those things really coexisting. Tartarus wasn’t a good place to get to know the world and we never get to see the Aerie where all the Harpies live at all. The closest we get to normal vaettir life, and the place where we spend most of the book, is a small US village/town called Ulysses’s Glen where only vaettir live. They live very normally though, apart from the occasional visit to an oracle or something similar. We don’t get to see the Aethereals living their normal lives either, and there’s just this big… gap between the literal underworld/afterlife and normal norm-life where the distinctive Harpy lifestyle and culture should be.

A few things about this story could be described as “gaps” or “absences” or “lacks” really. Let’s go through them.

  • The villain. I remember when Eragon came out and one of the many problems people had with it was the lack of the main villain’s presence. He just never shows up, but I guarantee he felt more present than Hera in this book. We never even get to see Hera (outside of a flashback that isn’t even Zephyr’s flashback) until the last battle. I mean, this isn’t a dealbreaker on its own. Sauron doesn’t show up in person in Lord of the Rings, but we feel his presence everywhere, hounding the good guys. The faceless, bodiless antagonistic forces in Kafka and Dave Eggers’s A Hologram For The King are effective. But Hera hasn’t really been doing a lot through Promise of Shadows.
  • Any reason to care about the characters. No one ever feels like they’re in danger, even when they are. And I never managed to bring myself to care too much about Zephyr’s search for her sister’s shade either, which is pretty bad of me. Similarly, when Zephyr meets her mother for a bit of lore in the Elysian Fields, I couldn’t care too much about the difference in her mother’s demeanour, because I hadn’t seen her alive and acting, only in a couple of poorly-executed flashbacks and descriptions. I’d rather have seen Mourning Dove (why not Dove Mourning? Why is Zephyr not Zephyr Dove? We’ll never know!) get at least one scene as badass tough-love warrior mother, because the sad fact of the matter is, Zephyr wasn’t good at making me feel like I knew her. And regarding Cass, in the beginning when Hades is telling Zephyr that Cass isn’t who she thinks, that Cass isn’t a good person (duh, she has been confined to Tartarus for literally centuries, possibly over a millennium???) he shows us a snippet from Cass’s past that will I guess show her in a bad light, except it doesn’t. Cass rampages through a norm village and destroys it, and challenges Hera to a duel, which she loses. Nothing about this is really contradictory to anything we’ve seen of Cass so far. “Killing people” is really the baseline of crime you’d expect in the worst part of the prison-underworld, and “lost a fight with Hera, the worst goddess of all” is hardly a damning stain on her character. Much better would have been to show Cass betraying someone, even if that was a twisted portrayal of what happened. Show Cass betraying the Nyx, and then when Zephyr finds out she’s the new Nyx, we have drama and conflict. But nope!
  • Zephyr’s wings. Okay, so the straight-up lack of Zephyr’s wings is not really a problem. The problem is how little she seems to care. She’s never caught short by it. She never thinks “I’ll just fly across- oh wait.” In short, having wings doesn’t seem to be ingrained in her psyche at all. This is how all of the worldbuilding is, to be honest. Zephyr doesn’t act or think like someone who grew up in a non-norm culture. Her weird Harpy schooling barely registers, and though at one point she tells us that giving flight feathers is a Harpy custom of gratitude, she never thinks about it before or after this. She’s never sad that she can’t thank Cass properly because she doesn’t have any wings. She never reaches for them or tries to stretch them or worries about narrow doors or is relieved at all the time she doesn’t have to spend preening them. It’s just empty lipservice to worldbuilding.
  • Zephyr’s evil dark magic. Something that had promise was the fact that Zephyr’s type of magic is widely considered evil and aberrant by the ruling class. I could see (I’m not blind or stupid) the politics underlying this: the magic associated with anger, difficult and powerful, the harder path, being stamped out by the ruling class, and Zephyr’s skin colour, the “dark” nature of the magic. And it would have been really cool if it had been explored a little more, you know? Zephyr is in a position where people like her are being not only oppressed, but exterminated. And though she’d lived mostly in ignorance of it (kept ignorant by others) we see her learn about it and get closer and closer to the awful truth. I wanted her to get angry. I wanted to see her learn to use her anger for good. I think that would have been a crazy powerful message, but the dispassionate writing made it hard to really lose myself in her emotions. Another thing that might have been effective would be to show her being angry unrelated to using her magic, to know that she has this dark side to her, and for her to have to learn to accept it. The magic comes to her so easily that there’s barely any character development – she doesn’t have to change her apathetic self, she just calls the shadows and they come. She tells them to kill and they kill, tells them to stop and they stop. There’s no sense of this supposed difficulty, and to be honest no sense of this supposed “evilness”. It’s not like anyone else uses their magic for good: the Aethereals are happy to go off murdering people on a whim. I wanted to see more of Zephyr’s relationship with the magic. Ireland gave me a beginning and end to that particular journey, but skipped the whole middle.
  • The prophecy. Okay, I’m sorry, you can’t have a whole story revolving around fulfilling a prophecy and then never tell us the full prophecy.

I’ll end on a sort of positive note: the diversity angle. Zephyr is black, her family is black (are all harpies black?), and there are hints of African-American culture** in the sequences where she’s staying with Nanda, the family friend. If anything, I wanted to see more of that, in the same way I wanted to see more of pretty much everything. As I said, it read like a very early draft with all these intriguing hints of things cut short, and I think a few drafts down the line, this could have been a really warm, vivid portrayal of an African-American-influenced urban fantasy.

The portrayal of women was a bit ehhhh at times, though mostly quite varied – there was Whisper, the idealised dead sister, Mourning Dove, the very tough love badass mother we saw barely anything of, Zephyr the special one (though apathetic to the point of uselessness), Cass the loyal, though emotionless, friend, and Nanda, the warm-hearted taker-in of strays. Then we have Alora, the pretty, shallow, attention-seeking Fate, Lyss, the petty water sprite, Persephone, the murderously jealous and emotionally incontinent wife of Hades and Hera, the inexplicably evil force behind everything. There weren’t that many terrible women, to be sure, but their terribleness fell into some awkward patterns. They were pretty much only terrible in stereotypically feminine ways.

Slightly more awkward was the possible gay character. I say “possible” because it isn’t clear in the slightest what is going on. One of the lads Zephyr finds herself hanging around with, Blue, is acting weird. Zephyr asks why. Tallon, her love interest, says it’s because he fancies the male Oracle they just went to see. Blue is like “ughhh” but it’s never denied. Because the Oracle is stereotypical trailer trash, Blue’s falling head over heels for him isn’t the most likely thing, and Blue seems upset but maybe this is because he’s sensitive about his taste? Either way, it never comes up again, they never see the Oracle again, and it remains unclear to this day whether Blue is actually gay or whether Tallon was engaging in some slightly homophobic banter.

Zephyr never asks. She’s even less curious about the world than Tessa Gray.

Oh god, did I mention that she can smell emotions? I don’t think I did. Anyway, she can smell emotions, and this comes into play precisely 0 times, though if I ever read the sentence construction “the [some kind of food] smell of his/her [emotion]” one more time I will scream. She doesn’t act around people like someone who can smell emotions – she never takes advantage of it either to be cruel or kind. She never tries to suppress her own emotions around other Harpies, or uses her own emotion-smell to add a further dimension to her words (saying one thing but passive-aggressively letting the smell of her emotions reveal her true feelings or whatever). Basically another unexplored piece of worldbuilding.

Anyway, this has been way too long, so let’s leave it at that. Conclusion: we need diverse books, but this diverse book needs to be better.

*Her name is Zephyr Mourning(!) and the book’s summary claims she is a Harpy assassin who cares more about mortal pop culture than murdering! How did it go so wrong? Where’s that book?!

**Again, I am a white Brit, and my knowledge of African-American culture comes from what I’ve picked up from pop culture and people talking on the internet!

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