Jason Franks, who wrote the marvellous Bloody Waters and the dark, darkly funny and unexpected Faerie Apocalypse has given us a new story, expanded from a 6-page comic published in 2008. This fine history for Shadowmancy means that the novel is illustrated with some striking black and white art from Nicholas Hunter throughout.
We have so many stories about schools of sorcery, from the mystical mysteries of Dr Strange’s Himalayan retreat with the Ancient One, Hogwarts with its breathtakingly cavalier approach to duty of care and student safety, Pratchett’s The Unseen University and countless mountain-top Shaolin monk and ninja training camps from the movies.
Franks distills all of these tropes down into the sinister Academy, residing on a hidden mountain, where students attempt to absorb the Arts without being directly taught. The venerable Chancellor who gives the young Quay a chance to study there, after Quay’s father broke the most fundamental rule (don’t have a family) retains echoes of Dumbledore/Gandalf/Ancient One but he’s also his own scheming self.
That’s one of the joys of this book: all the echoes of fictions past, which draw on our collective memory of magic schools and give a frisson of recognition before taking sharp turns in its own direction, delivering a dark and gritty study of a boy who thinks he will out-learn them all. Quay is a misanthrope and sociopath, and still Franks makes him work as the central antihero.
Chosen One and teen hero tropes are inverted, sometimes messily, and the prose gives eloquent insights into philosophies of art, mind and power.
Shadowmancy is a crunchy little book, thoroughly enjoying, in its dark and brooding way, the dismantling of mystic-mountain-school pop culture. (Franks does like to invert tropes, which is a thing I love about his writing).
If you want to read about a magic school and what it’s probably really like, or if you just want dark fantasy fiction written by an author with a grip on his craft, I recommend this book with a Wahoo!