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Review of In The Shadow of Their Dying by Anna Smith Spark and Michael R. Fletcher

In esoteric philosophy, it takes the combination of two polarised energetic forces in order to produce something new and original. The most obvious example of this is found in conception and childbirth. But the same applies in the intellectual and imaginative realms as well.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is one such original creation, sprung from the union of two giants of fantasy: Michael R. Fletcher, known as the Mad Titan of dark fantasy (what an epithet!), and Anna Smith Spark, Queen of Grimdark.

Having read both of these authors, I have to admit I was uncertain how their styles would effectively combine. Michael R. Fletcher writes in a stark and cerebral manner. His work explores powerful concepts and, at least in my view, seems primarily concerned with ideas. For example, in Beyond Redemption, his world is populated by Geisteskranken, individuals whose delusions are so powerful they manifest in physical reality. Fletcher uses this high-concept premise to explore the dark recesses of the human mind and our relationship with religion and belief. In many ways, his novel read to me like an allegorical tale, in which characters embody particular human delusions or desires or false beliefs. In this way, his work has a distinctly Spenserian vein.

By contrast, Anna Smith Spark’s epic Empires of Dust series is written in a deeply emotive and impressionistic style. Her story is not centred around precise plotting or logically worked out magic systems, but rather on the torrid and tumultuous emotional interiors of her characters; its these emotions, more than anything else, that drive them and the action. I compared Empires of Dust to The Iliad in my original review because, like Homer’s masterwork, it is the furyof Achilles that takes centre stage, not the politics of Troy and Greece.

My fears about how two such differing styles would combine were unfounded, however. In fact, the abilities each author brought to the table augmented and complimented the other beautifully. Fletcher’s sheer bleakness was lifted by Anna Smith Spark’s incredibly lush and stylish poetry. And conversely, Spark’s more abstract approach to narrative—which at times can be hard to follow—was grounded by Fletcher’s more concrete and direct approach, as well as beingilluminated by his jet black humour. Although it must be said both writers introduce comedy into their dark narratives in surprising ways.

But enough meditations on writing style. I should get to the plot!

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a story about three characters caught up in the midst of a terrible and pointless war. Though there are a host of players in the tale, our main protagonists are: the hapless yet cunning Tash, the “third best assassin in Sharaam”; Pitt, the leader of a curious gang of cutthroats and magical beings; and finally, Iananr, a demon bound in service to the King of Sharaam.

Clive Barker once wrote in his masterpiece Imajica that:

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course – thousands in fact – but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center.”

This is certainly true of In The Shadow of Their Dying, for it is these three players that constantly drive the action with their alliances and betrayals, their rises to power and subsequent falls, their changes of heart, and their reversions to their darker natures. Each perspective is unique. Tash is a strangely relateable narcissist who wants people to take him seriously and will do anything to ensure that. Pitt is an experienced manipulator who yet has a weak-spot for one woman in particular. And Iananr is perhaps the most fascinating perspective of all: she is a demon bound to human form, and her mind roves in ways that are utterly alien and almost incomprehensible to us.

In the structuring and styling of the story, both writers play to their strengths. It’s clear Anna Smith Spark handled the chapters written from the perspective of Iananr, using her gorgeously sensuous prose to conjure the unknowable thoughts and feelings of a being that is not truly of the flesh but of the spirit. At times, the writing almost becomes pure poetry, grammar and words bent out of all shape and recognition as they strain to evoke the labyrinthine mind of a creature that is more god than mortal. This is doubly appropriate, because it is with “words-chains”—a spell—that the demon is bound, and the demon is constantly meditating on the inadequacy and yet the hidden power of words.

By contrast, it’s clear Fletcher leant his hand to Tash’s chapters, his grimdark sensibilities rendering our assassin in delightful shades of morally grey. Tash is a loathsome human being, but strangely compelling. Comedy is interspersed with bloodshed and morally reprehensible acts in an almost Shakespearean fashion. The ultimate fate our assassin ishilarious and darkly fitting.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is only a novella, so the plot is neither grand nor sweeping. All the action takes place within the city walls of Sharaam. But this serves to up the tension and enhance the focus even further on the characters; in this way, the book feels almost like a play, and fittingly Tash wistfully reflects upon his own life as a play being written by a great playwright. Spark and Fletcher have created a darkly vibrant world despite the fact we only see a taster of it. They also take a few old tropes of the fantasy genre and remake them in gloriously inventive ways. Despite the plot not being the main focus of the story, there are a few wonderful surprises in store that will catch you unawares.

If I have one minor criticism, it is at times scenes are repeated from a different character’s perspective a few too many times for my taste, especially for a novella of this size. But this is a minor quibble, and the murky atmosphere of the story is sustained throughout.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a gore-soaked, betrayal-filled, grimdark delight that yet hides a strangely spiritual core. It asks the question of what ties truly bind us to a life of misery, war, bloodshed, and addiction, and whether those ties might really be an illusion, and what might happen if we could free ourselves of those ties. The answers are not predictable, nor expected. And the characters we think are capable of redemption may, after all, be doomed to repeat their mistakes. And the characters we believe are irredeemable may yet surprise us.

I, for one, hope that we see another book from these two masters of the craft. A few threads have been left which could be used to weave a larger narrative. But even if we don’t see more, In The Shadow of Their Dying is a perfectly blendedshot of dark fantasy that burns the throat on the way down, and leaves an aftertaste as beautifully bitter as it is sweet.

You can purchase the novella here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US