Humans had long shared the planet Ver-draak with the Ni-lach people—until, in fear of the unusual Ni-lach powers, they turned on the natives. The Ni-lach who survived the massacres went into hiding.
Pursued by bounty hunters, Dhalvad the Ni-lach and Poco the half-breed fled into the woods.
Though Poco didn’t know it, she had a special Ni-lach talent, similar to Dhal’s abilities to Heal and to transport himself through space and time. But somehow she had to learn to use her gift—for the fate of all the Ni-lach people hung in the balance.
So this is a good cover. I like it. We’ve got Blue Feather Cat, Slow Loris, Mizz Fabulous, and Nathan Fillion looking at a dome with steeples, weird trees, and a river. It tells us all we need to know: we’re about to read a fantasy book.
But here’s a thing! I got this book in the science fiction section of a Friends of the Library booksale. Now, admittedly, the FotL are volunteers and the person who sorted this was likely not someone who would take the time to question which branch of speculative fiction a book fit into before putting it down on a table and getting on to the next thing. I can understand that.
The SFE entry for Marcia J. Bennett calls this series—of which I obviously ended up with the second book without ever knowing there were any more—planetary romance. That’s a good term. I like that term and there are lots of planetary romances that I’ve enjoyed. With that in mind, I dug into the book, expecting, well, planets and romance.
We get both, sure, so I guess the genre description is accurate. Still, though, I worked my way through this book with one question pecking constantly at my brain: how is this not a fantasy book?
Yes, the distinctions can be fuzzy a lot of the time and I’m not here to nerd around with a lot of old arguments. What I’m saying is that this book, Shadow Singer, is a fantasy book. It has elves. It has trees. It has cat people. It has magic. It has medieval-ish technology. It has inns.
As far as fantasy novels go, this one was okay. It was inoffensive. The names didn’t grate at my brain, the quest was mildly original, and, most surprisingly, we didn’t have a white human male protagonist. Instead we had a white half-human female protagonist. On the good side, she actually had agency and did stuff. On the frowny side, most of her agency and doing stuff revolves around the fact that she’s in love with elf Nathan Fillion, but who among us can say we wouldn’t do the same?
Our heroine is Poco. She’s half Ni-lach. The Ni-lach, or Ni, are the ancient inhabitants of this planet. Humans arrived at some point in the past. I guess the human use of space ships at one point thousands of years ago is what makes this a planetary romance and not a D&D campaign. Ni-lach have magic powers. They aren’t called that, but that’s what they are. Some of them, like Nathan Elfillion, can Heal. Poco can Sing, but at the start of the book she doesn’t know that she can Sing, as opposed to being able to sing. She can sing, too.
The Ni were oppressed for a long time by the invading humans because humans don’t like magic powers, even if they’re only used peacefully by a master race of serene-as-hell elfs. This strikes me as accurate characterization.
Lots of planetary romances turn out to be critiques of colonialism. Sometimes that can get a little sticky, and this is one of those times. Although that element of the story is way back in the past, I feel like what we’ve got here is a land of Magic Indians being invaded by the Technocratic White People. This is, again, another fantasy trope, and sometimes it’s worth reminding people that Native Americans aren’t magical sexy elfs who live in the trees. They’re people, and treating people and their history like fantasy is demeaning.
So Poco and her full-Ni boyfriend Dhalvad are on a quest. They’re looking for more Ni. Accompanying them are Gi-arobi, a little furry thing whose job is to talk cute and get injured so that we feel feelings. He is usually called Gi. There is also Ssaal-lr, a cat person. He is usually called Screech, and at one point we get to learn a lot about his native people.
Not long after the book starts, our quartet discovers the fifth party member, another Ni named Taav. Taav has problems. He was a slave and he got injured at one point so now he can’t talk. Poco and Dhal buy him from his slavemaster and then Dhal uses his healing powers to try to fix him, and while they work a little bit, they don’t work all the way, so we get this mute following everybody around for the rest of the book, not contributing to the quest in any way but to wander off into the forest and distract our heroes from said quest.
Everybody’s heading north—I forgot to mention that there’s a handy map in the beginning of this book that looks just like literally every other map in a fantasy book, down to the font—because there might be Ni in some place to the North. It turns out that this is the second book in the series, and in the last book they found a Ni city but it was abandoned. They got some artifacts from it, and now it seems those artifacts are doing stuff.
At one point Poco sings a song, as she is wont to do, but this time something goes funny and she doesn’t sing a song, she Sings a Song, and it opens up a portal to another world. I think this had something to do with one of the artifacts they found in book one, so it’s understandable that this kind of thing is hitherto undiscovered. Either way, Poco and Dhal go poking around in that other world, learn that it’s under attack by some people who are like Ni but very slightly different, but that it’s also the home of the Tamorlee, and this is Important.
The Tamorlee is a giant crystal. It’s alive and it can talk to Ni. When the humans invaded however long ago, the Ni managed to move the Tamorlee over to this other world to keep it safe. It was safe for a while, but now it’s unsafe, so somebody has to go make it safe again.
Our noble party isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it, so in true fantasy form, they keep walking. There’s an incident with some other cat people where Screech has to fight a Champion so that the party can go free. Somewhere in there Gi gets hurt and because he’s the heart of the party we all have to feel scared for a second.
After that part’s over, the heroes end up being captured again. Getting captured is about sixty percent of this story. In this final time, though, it turns out that they’ve been captured by good guys. It also turns out that these good guys inhabit the city of Ni that Dhal has been searching for, so that works out pretty nicely.
Side note: these Ni wear leather armor made from “draak.” Draak are scaly lizard monsters. I’m sure it’s only coincidence that their name is basically just dragon. It’s further a coincidence that they are also literally dragons. To be fair, I don’t think I saw a mention of them breathing fire. So there’s that. Still, how is this not fantasy?
These new Ni are named Chulu and Caaras and Amet and, actually, these names really are starting to grate on me. There’s a whole city of people who have names that, I’m sure, are pretty similar to these. They learn that Poco can Sing, and then we get this long exposition about what that means. See, Poco is only a half-breed and Dhal is out of touch with his ancient culture, so that means that whenever they meet “real” Ni we get a couple of lectures about how Ni do things.
Poco has the power to Sing. We’ve established this. What it really means, though, is that through Singing she’s able to open Gates. These Gates are literally gates to other worlds. I guess we knew that too. We may have established elsewhere in the book that it’s Taav—remember Taav?—who has the power to hold the Gates open. The thing is, Taav isn’t a real Ni. He’s actually one of the bad Ni from the other world. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but it does mean that Chulu, et. al., don’t trust him.
One way or another, they all combine powers to open up the Gate wide enough that an army can go through and take back the Tamorlee. There’s some action. Dhal strolls up to the Tamorlee to communicate with it (normally there’s a specific person with the magic power to communicate with it, but I’m starting to think that Dhal is Special).
One of the things this book does right is that the point of view is solidly fixed on Poco. This is the kind of thing I ask for in a book. Never once does the pov jump to somebody else just so the author can describe a thing that’s out of sight. Instead, the author makes our protagonist see what’s going on from a distance, have a reaction, and then get the full story. It’s a much better way of writing a story. I’m not saying anything new or controversial, but golly do so many authors just not get it.
So what Poco sees is the Tamorlee exploding. She’s distressed, because her boyfriend was just talking to it. It turns out okay, though, because here comes Dhal. Everybody’s like “You blew up the whole reason for us coming here in the first place, Dhalcom Reynolds,” and he’s just “Nope, it turns out that the giant crystal with nearly infinite knowledge can transfer all that knowledge into a crystal so small I can wear it around my neck, so here we go, let’s get out of here.”
And then Gi says something cute and the book ends.
I might sound like I’m coming down hard on this novel but really it doesn’t deserve much ire. It was pretty formulaic fantasy, with a decent little setting where elfs were called something else, and on the whole it was unexceptional. Some parts were pretty okay, and nothing stood out as horrible.
I still want to pose the question to you, dear reader, as to why somebody somewhere, including the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, didn’t just call this book a fantasy novel. I know I’m harping on this but it really bugs me. I’m one of those people who are quick to annoy other people by saying something like “Star Wars isn’t science fiction, it’s fantasy, because c’mon, it’s got magic and magic swords and there’s trees in the third one.” So with that in mind, Shadow Singer was waaaaaay more fantasy than Star Wars. It makes Star Wars look like Kim Stanley Robinson.
And then we get to the fact that not only is this a fantasy novel, it’s that kind of fantasy novel where all the standard fantasy characters and tropes are renamed into something else. Oddly, I tend to consider this a video game thing, but this is one of many novels I’ve seen where that happens. My question is, what’s the point? Call ’em elfs if they’re elfs, dragons if they’re dragons. There’s no reason to say “This isn’t a dwarf, it’s a g’huir’on, and it simply looks and acts exactly like dwarfs do.” Just call it what it is.
I’m sure there’s something I really like that does that and someone will call me out on it, but until then, I’ll just sit here stewing.