I first came across the Nightrunner series some years ago, after the US paperback edition of Luck in the Shadows found its way across the Atlantic, and was immediately taken by the protagonists, gentleman-thief “Lord” Seregil of Rhiminee and his young protégé Alec. They were the first realistic gay* couple I had encountered in fantasy, their slow-burning romance grounding but never overwhelming the stories of intrigue and magic. I was therefore slightly disappointed when Flewelling put aside her rogueish heroes to concentrate on her other trilogy set in the same world, and it’s taken me a while to get around to reading this fourth installment. It doesn’t help that I read some reviews beforehand that were less than favourable. Caveat lector!
Shadows Return picks up the story some months after the end of Traitor’s Moon, and finds Seregil and Alec back in Rhiminee and up to their old tricks again. However the past few years’ unhappy experiences have left Seregil a more sombre man who can no longer take delight in midnight adventures across the roofs of the city. When the opportunity arises to travel to his homeland and escort Princess Klia back to Rhiminee, therefore, he is more than happy to abandon his life of crime. However the past is never far away, and soon the two men find themselves facing old enemies – and new ones.
I can understand why some readers might find this book a little unsatisfying. After the opening scene involving a “nightrunner” mission from which Seregil and Alec barely escape with their skins – and reputations – intact, the story does rather slow down, focusing on the political machinations within Rhiminee. The writing is also a bit clumsy in places, with repetitive sentences and maybe a few too many attempts to remind readers of events in previous books. The latter is always a problem with series, however, and no solution is ever going to please all readers. In my opinion it’s worth pressing on to the meat of the story, where Flewelling racks up the tension with gradual – and sometimes shocking – revelations about who the bad guys are and what they’re up to.
Another minor frustration is that, like Luck in the Shadows, this book is more of a setup for its sequel than a standalone novel. My impression is that Flewelling prefers writing long, long novels which then get cut into two volumes by her publisher. Unlike The Bone Doll’s Twin, however, this one doesn’t end on a frustrating cliffhanger, for which I was heartily grateful! On the other hand it does end somewhat abruptly, with a brief tie-up of the main plot and an even briefer epilogue that hints strongly at what the next book will be about.
In some respects, Shadows Return is a retread of Stalking Darkness; once again Alec is the helpless victim of a Plenimaran sorceror, humiliated and tortured for arcane purposes whilst his friends desperately seek to rescue him. However this time the familiar story is interwoven with a more powerful one about revenge, jealousy and forgiveness that pulls the previous three books neatly together before leading towards what promises to be a thrilling fifth installment. Far from being the “filler” episode that some reviews had led me to expect, I enjoyed Shadows Return much more than the rather slow-paced Traitor’s Moon, as evidenced by the fact that I read the entire book in a weekend, despite pauses to work on my own manuscript.
If you enjoy cloak-and-dagger fantasy with a dash of gay romance and haven’t read the three previous books – go and do so now, then come back for this one. I won’t say that they’re the best books you’ll ever read, but the central characters are engaging and as the series progresses Flewelling balances light and dark moods with increasing assurance. Having spent a very enjoyable weekend in the company of Alec and Seregil, I can’t wait to read Book 5, The White Road; expect a review of that here very soon!
* Strictly speaking, Seregil is bisexual, but the books are about his long-term relationship with Alec – previous liaisons with women are mentioned but seem to be mostly long in the past.