All the Paths of Shadow by Frank Tuttle

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 
Title: All the Paths of Shadow
Author: Frank Tuttle
Genre: Fantasy/steampunk
URL: Cool Well Press
Price: US $9.99 for digital version
Other Information/warnings: none
Summary [from the publisher]:
Walk warily, walk swiftly, walk away.

The king’s orders were clear enough. “Move the tower’s shadow,” he bellowed. “I refuse to deliver my commencement speech from the dark.”

As the newly appointed mage to the Crown of Tirlin, Meralda Ovis has no choice but to undertake King Yvin’s ill-conceived task. Tirlin’s first female mage, and the youngest person to ever don the robes of office, Meralda is determined to prove once and for all that she deserves the title. The Tower, though, holds ancient secrets all its own. Secrets that will soon spell destruction for all of Tirlin—unless Meralda can unravel a monstrous curse laid by a legendary villain seven centuries before she was born.

An ancient curse. A haunted tower. A clamorous gathering of nobles, mages, and kings from the Five Realms come together in Tirlin for the fifth-year Accords. Meralda finds herself facing far darker foes than any mere shadow of the tower.

My review:
[this review is of a copy won in a giveaway]

I’m only familiar with Frank Tuttle’s incomparable Finder Markhat series, so I was curious—not to mention a little hesitant—about this one. However, since the author is a writer of considerable skill and humour, I figured it couldn’t be awful.

It’s certainly not awful at all. In some respects, it’s pretty darn good. The world building is fascinating — a blend of steampunk motifs (the airships, the many, many tubes) and magic with a distinctly scientific bent (nice touch, I thought). I found that unusual and compelling. And in the Markhat series, the minor characters are both memorable and amusing – Meralda’s familiar is a talking, animated house plant with attitude, her guards are a pair of gormless, yet chivalrous country bumpkins, her protectors from the army are wise, brave and pithy, and the wizards…. Well, the wizards are naughty old men, and don’t we love them. Then there’s the mysterious Donchen, who may or may not be in league with Meralda’s foes, but he cooks a mean eggroll.

Meralda herself is less compelling, though she’s a strong female heroine without the need to be kickass, angry and aggressive. Though it’s largely from her POV, I didn’t feel I had as good a handle on her as I would have liked. Her voice is nothing like as distinctive as Markhat’s, and she could have done with a bit more bite and crankiness. She was sort of presented to us as a prodigy already formed, and I got the impression that had we followed her from her early teens to the time in the story, she would have been a more sympathetic person.

The writing is richly descriptive — perhaps a bit too much so, since the main problem I had with the book was the pacing. Again, this is partly because I’m familiar only with the Markhat books which tend to fly along in the style of the noir detective books to which they are a homage. All the Paths of Shadow proceeds at a much more stately pace, and never picks up much speed. This, the barrage of unfamiliar names (which I felt were overused in the beginning), and the irritating writerly tick of constantly repeating Meralda’s name, even several times in the same sentence, even when she’s the only person in the scene and certainly the only female character, really made this a bit of a trial to get through. I persisted because the plot slowly—oh, so slowly—draws together the apparently disparate threads of the arrival of the Hang fleet, the upcoming Accords ceremony, moving the shadow of an ominous and possibly haunted tower and the threat from the Germanically inspired Vonaths.

The editing was clean – I only detected one outright mistake – but peculiar, allowing for a really eccentric sentence structure and paragraph layout. Large parts of the book impose paragraph breaks where none are needed, and contributes to a choppy, slow feel to an already overslow pacing. I felt that the editor could have reined in some of the unnecessary stage business and description, and that would have tightened it up and improved the pace.

In the end, I have trouble rating this one. I enjoyed it less than any of Frank Tuttle’s other books that I’ve read (please do yourself a favour and look out for the Markhat books) but the worldbuilding and cast were so wonderful, it seems shabby to only rate it on enjoyment alone (especially when I am notoriously bothered by things that bother no one else.) This is a book to immerse yourself in, not a fast-paced adventure, and if you like fantasy or steampunk, there are riches aplenty here to enjoy. Lots of stuff happens, and lots of stuff is set up for the next in the serious. Now the all the establishing has been done, I’m looking forward to Meralda’s further adventures.