Watcher of the Dead is the fourth book in J V Jones’ (JVJ) Sword of Shadows series and as such I’ve assumed that you’ve either got knowledge of the previous 3 volumes, or, after reading this, you’ll be enthused to click on the link at the bottom and order volume one.
Until I just had a look, I always thought JVJ pushed this series out fairly rapidly but it turns out its 4 books in 11 years, which compares unfavourably to George RR Martin’s 4 books in 9 years (and I never thought I’d use the word unfavourably in comparing release schedules against Martin!). Still, its mostly due to a 5 year hiatus between books two and three, which caused me to reread books one and two at the time.
Book four, Watcher of the Dead, sees the action really hotting up. “Relentless” isn’t a word I use a lot, especially in a 400 page novel but it really is suitable in this instance: from Angus Lok, to Raif, to the Eye, Effie, Raina and so on, at the start of each and every chapter you’re desperate to continue the story of the person from the last chapter. For all of two pages anyway, and then you’re gripped by the continuation of the next characters story arc.
Poor old Raif is looking like he’s going to be held together entirely by scar tissue at some point in the not to distant future, there is some imagination involved in the regular torments he suffers. Certainly wouldn’t want to get the wrong side of the person that dreamt them up.
Part of the skill is keeping a tight rein on your characters, if they wander off you spend too much time getting them into place for the finale, and this is where series can lose it in the middle- endless trekking, contrived reasons for going somewhere and a lot of boredom for the reader. It’s obvious JVJ has spent a lot of time planning this series and this book particularly because at volume 4 we’ve not really encountered pointless marching for the sake of getting the chess pieces in the right place.
The only issue I have with this book is a silly one really. It’s so well written if you read the series back to back it exposes the shortfallings of the first book. Thats not to say Cavern of Black Ice is badly written because it isn’t, but this is on a different level, the writing is up there with the top contemporary fantasy crowd. I shudder to think the level of research thats gone in to some of it (although hopefully not as much research into the torture aspects as the post Iron Age technology and so on).
All in all, well worth reading. If you’ve read the other 3, it’s a no brainer to get this, if you haven’t, go grab volume one, A Cavern of Black Ice, you’re in for a treat.
If you want to see some more detailed analysis (containing *SPOILERS*), there are some after the click through.
In terms of the story, the main protaginists are followed, mostly on a chapter at a time basis, sometimes we’re lucky and get two on the trot.
With Raif (much like Rand in the WoT), the under tone to the whole story is the hero and his battle to maintain his humanity as he battles to save humanity. Early on he is captured by renegade Sull and kept drugged, forced to fight in an endless stream of duels. Raif’s constant fighting reminded me of a Stephen Donaldson short story, the Killing Blow, in that in involved incessant fighting and the dehumanisation of the participants. I think the relentlessness of it came from this attempt to dehumanise him. The death of Addie is equally shocking as we’re used to the Sull being hard but noble. By the end of it he’s escaped but again is a different person to who he was at the beginning of the book. When he next meets Ash, I think the difference in him as a person will be really bought home.
Effie’s story line was interesting, I see her as possible a Bran analogue from George Martin’s Ice & Fire series; presumably there will be some hefty sorcery in the final battles in later volumes. Magic has a place in the books, although not as prominent as in other fantasy series.Having said that Barralis’ story wasn’t advanced in this volume, so we are still waiting to see what happens there.
The Doglord sees the first alliance between Sull and Clan, and I assume this will be built on. Other than that, he spends the few chapters he has gradually strolling back towards the Bluddhouse. We do get an insight into how common the attacks by the Unmade are becoming through his perspective though.
With Raina, we’re seeing the start of the fall of Mace, which will tie that story up and, dependent on the battle at the Crab Gate in the next volume, either see Blackhail as a force or not. I was jolly chuffed to see the Scarpe’s evicted bodily from the Hailehouse.
Angus’ story is two fold, its a revenge story but its also a mechanism for giving us an insight into the Phage who are stepping up their activities. Assassinating the Eye’s father in Law, poisoning the Scarpes well, the Phage have a more active role in this volume, above and beyond the rangering the Angus has done in the first two volumes. For what its worth, I thought the ruthlessness he showed was quite chilling, and shows how morally ambiguous the Phage can be- it tied in nicely with Bram’s story.
Ash doesn’t have as a dramatic story line in this book but that’s understandable to a degree. In many ways she’s a bit like a nuclear weapon- every times she’s bought into play things have to escalate, and that doesn’t really have a place in this book.