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Nathan’s review of The Shadow Gate by LL MacRae

The Shadow Gate takes everything that was great about The Iron Crown and cranks it up to its full potential. This book will grab you and won’t let you go as it boils over with relatable characters, messy family dynamics, magical artifacts, and spirit dragons. If you were a fan of The Iron Crown, drop everything that you are doing and dive right in.

Seriously.

I’m not one to either (1) read a book when I first get it, nor (2) binge read my way through a book. I did both with The Shadow Gates because I absolutely couldn’t pry myself away from it. Its absorbing and propulsive, thoughtful and intriguing, magical and transportive.

All right, let’s get into some actual details. In this review I’m going to assume that you’ve already read The Iron Crown, so if you haven’t keep reading at your own risk of spoilers.

I first read The Iron Crown last year when I was reading through the epic fantasies, and I thought it was a perfectly enjoyable epic fantasy with one of my favorite creative spins on the dragon mythos. I’ll be completely honest that it wasn’t my favorite book of all time (I get easily annoyed by amnesia plots!), but I saw a lot of potential in what LL MacRae was doing in this world, and I highly anticipated the sequel.

Well, MacRae not only reached that potential in The Shadow Gate, she burst right through it. I don’t know what kinds of drugs she injected into this book, but she needs to market that stuff!

I don’t even know where to start actually getting into specifics, so I will just start with my favorite element – the complex family dynamics. Every character in The Shadow Gate has a complicated relationships with their families. Fenn doesn’t remember who his family is. Selys (the water-priestess from The Iron Crown) reconnects with her pirate brother as they grapple with the loss of their parents and sibling. Calidra is still trying to connect with the sister she thought was dead, and the niece she never knew existed. Apollo is trying to get back to this wife and daughter. Torsten is grappling with his own lack of a family, and the result of dedicating his entire life to the Crown.

Families are inherently messy; they are people we are told we have to love because we share some biological connection with them rather than choosing them. This creates often contradictory feelings – we don’t always like our families, but we feel the social pressure to love them. The characters of The Shadow Gate confront these issues head on, which gives the book a very personal and contemplative feeling that is often missing in epic fantasy.

These dynamic and complex relationships also help The Shadow Gate side-step a lot of the “middle book syndrome” that impacts many epic fantasy series. While yes, the plot does admittedly slow a bit in this book (there is a lot of place setting happening and moving characters into the right places), the characters become so much deeper and richer that I didn’t even care about the plot. Every character became more textured here, to the point where I was even getting weepy about Torsten (yes, Torsten) because I had developed such deep and intimate connections with each and every character MacRae put on the page. And not only are they all individually deep, but the way in which each and every character enters and exit’s each other’s orbits, forever changing the individual and group dynamics, kept me turning the page more than any plot element could have.

MacRae expands her cast of characters beyond the original scope of The Iron Crown. All of your favorite POV characters are back, along with a couple of new ones, and many of the non-Fenn POVs get a much bigger role here. I really liked that we got more time with many of these characters, not only because characters like Calidra and Torsten are so interesting to be around, but also because Fenn is a bit….annoying in this book. His frustrating behavior absolutely makes sense in context, and his almost single-minded goal of retrieving his memories is admirable (as much as you sometimes want to slap him for his actions). However, at the same time, like The Wheel of Time’s Rand after, say, book two he’s not a character whose head you want to spend too much time in. Luckily, the other characters round out the book in a much more balanced way that allow Fenn to act in character while also not sinking the entire book in his own delusions and misery.

I also have to give it up to MacRae for not being afraid of her own magic and worldbuilding. The worldbuilding in The Shadow Gate, like The Iron Crown, is relatively sparse. MacRae doesn’t throw a whole lot of little facts about politics, economy, international relations, or anything else at the reader. MacRae trusts her own characters to fully occupy the page so that she doesn’t have to lean on worldbuilding to fill the gaps. But at the same time, MacRae doesn’t run from her own creation. Anyone who has read The Iron Crown knows that the *chefs kiss* of that book were the spirit dragons. A lot of fantasy authors craft something really cool (like spirit dragons) and then keep them off the page. This often comes down to author’s not really knowing how to use their creative worldbuilding in a way that advances plot and character arcs, but I can promise you that The Shadow Gate is brimming with spirit dragons of all shapes, sizes, and personalities that impact both the plot and character arcs in meaningful ways, rather than just feeling like window-dressing. MacRae really knew what she had and didn’t let us down!

The ending of the books sets up what can only be an explosive final book as there are big changes in store for both the world and our heroes. The final book cannot come soon enough.

Concluding Thoughts: Building and improving upon The Iron Crown in nearly every conceivable way, The Shadow Gate is an absorbing and addicting sequel that simultaneously explores complex themes of family, community, and belong, while still being chock full of magical items, spirit dragons, and propulsive action scenes. The plot slows a bit down in a way common of many sequels, but the amazing characters and world will keep you turning the pages until the very last one. Highly recommended, and I cannot wait until the third and final book comes out.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Shadow Gate!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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