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The Shadow Within
ISBN: 0-7642-2795-5

By Karen Hancock
Review by: Sandra Tarling


The two-time Christy Award winning author Karen Hancock continues the allegorical fantasy saga, the Legends of the Guardian King Series, with the second installment, The Shadow Within. The epic hero, Prince Abramm Kalladorne of Kiriath, who was introduced in the first book of the series, The Light of Eidon, returns to his homeland after six years of living abroad. He is drawn back to Kiriath when he hears that it is threatened by a kraggin, a sea monster reminiscent of Beowulf’s Grendel crossed with Moby Dick. Abramm’s slaying of this monster signifies his right to claim Kiriath’s throne, which has been occupied by his brother Gillard. Abramm’s return and claim to rule set into motion a variety of plots and sub-plots involving betrayals, intrigue, and shifting loyalties and alliances.

Hancock writes in a direct and straightforward style, refreshingly unadorned. The story unfolds to reveal a medieval fantasy world inhabited by multi-dimensional characters defined by human weaknesses and faults. Unlike a traditional allegory, this legend is character driven and allegorical references are more of an echo, with hints of the Arthurian legend and the Biblical stories of Joseph returning home after being sold into slavery and the conflict between Cain and Abel. Although the characters are motivated by a moral code of right and wrong, the choices they face are painted in shades of gray. These elements all work together to bring to life a fantasy world comparable to our everyday world with its similar conflicts and challenges.

Eidon – or God – which is manifested as the Light that lives within those who have accepted Him, plays a dominant role. Although this is the strongest Christian reference, this element works as an integral part of this fantasy world. Part of Abramm’s challenge is to accept that his destiny is ultimately in Eidon’s hands, and it can only be realized when that is acknowledged and the self is surrendered to the One who originally preordained his fate. It is only through surrendering to Eidon that Abramm can triumph against his opponents, those who choose the Darkness over the Light.

Abramm had been sold into slavery by his brother Gillard, but after two years he escaped and settled in Esurh, the land of the Dorsaddi, where he honed his fighting skills to become the famous gladiator known as the White Pretender and accepted Eidon to become a Terstan. His return to Kiriath and slaying of the kraggin result in his immediate claim to the Crown. Although the Table of Lords is reluctant, Abramm convinces them that he’s the rightful king according to the laws of succession, which sets into motion a host of intrigues, plots, and shifting alliances that Abramm must face and overcome.

First among Abramm’s foes is his brother, Gillard, who has been a weak and corrupt king during most of the years Abramm has been away. With several of the Lords’ support, Gillard schemes and plots to undermine Abramm, including attempts to harm or kill him, which Abramm successfully sidesteps. Since Abramm does not want to harm his brother and hopes to eventually win Gillard’s support, he takes no actions against him. Abramm walks a political tightrope in this decision since his inaction leaves Gillard and his followers free to stir up an insurrection.

An even more insidious enemy, Rhiad, a Master Guardian of the Mataian, turns towards the Darkness out of his hatred for Abramm. He sets into motion plans to kill Abramm, including the creation of an evil wolf-like creature, a morwhol, who continuously gains strength and size from killing victims, both animals and human, and feeding off of their life force. The morwhol terrorizes the countryside, initially killing small animals but graduating to attacking humans. Abramm is its ultimate prey since its creation included Abramm’s blood, which draws it inexorably towards their final encounter.

Soon after his arrival in Kiriath, Abramm finds an unlikely ally and budding love interest in Lady Madeleine, a lower ranking noblewoman who doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. Uncertain of what to think of her, Abramm finds that he enjoys her company, yet feels confused by the conflicting feelings he has when he is with her. Madeleine, not surprisingly, is a fellow follower of Eidon and manages to be with Abramm at critical moments, including Gillard’s assassination attempt and the final battle scene. Abramm finds Madeleine’s stubbornness and refusal to be dismissed as maddening, which leads to some lively repartee when they’re together. The sparks this sets off transform into something more as the story continues, ending with a hint of the love they share.

Underlying all of these political and social challenges are spiritual ones as well. As a man of faith, Abramm is assailed with doubts and fears, which are compounded by external physical beings that attack and undermine the characters’ resolve. The kraggin’s aura permeates Abramm’s thoughts, adding to his fear and wavering confidence until he shakes it off. Throughout Abramm’s exploits, he and his followers are also attacked by “shadowspawn,” “Griiswurm,” “spawn spore,” and “staffid.” If infected, the victim contracts a flu-like “spore sickness,” and becomes weakened and more vulnerable to the influences of the Darkness. The only antidote is to perform a “purge,” which rids the system of the sickness by allowing the Light to permeate the body.

Paralleling Abramm’s physical and spiritual journeys, Abramm’s sister Carissa undertakes her own journey. She is introduced as “Lady Louisa” who has returned to Kiriath from abroad and is now living in the old Highmount Fortress in the far northeast corner of Kiriath. Carissa is in retreat, unhappy with Abramm, who has seemingly joined the Mataio, and hiding from her brutish husband Rennalf. Her retreat is interrupted by her husband’s arrival, which results in Carissa fleeing. Her return journey involves capture and escape from her husband, who subscribes to the Darkness, and then Rhiad with his morwhol, who hopes to use her as bait to lure Abramm. Carissa’s physical journey ends when she is reunited with Abramm, and in the course of this journey she also grows to accept the Light as well as Abramm.

This chapter of the Guardian King legend ends with Abramm succeeding against all his foes, his brother’s civil uprising and the morwhol’s attack, with some surprising twists. In the process of defeating these physical threats, Abramm also struggles against the Darkness and ultimately prevails with the support of his closest followers who share his faith in Eidon. His victory unites the country, seals the alliances with his newest supporters, and firmly establishes him as the king Kiriath.

All of this fantasy saga’s elements work together to depict a struggle between good and evil associated with Christianity, yet these characters’ travails and the fantasy kingdom they inhabit also work on a more universal level. Hancock has created an imaginatively conceived world that shares many characteristics with the ones created by J. R. R. Tolkien and other renowned fantasy writers, in particular the compelling need to restore the right order in the world. In The Shadow Within, Hancock successfully meets this human need by establishing Abramm Kalladorne as the rightful king in Kiriath who is guided by Eidon – the Light, thus initiating a new order.

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