The Shade of Highfall: The Tale of Shrew is the debut novel by fantasy writer Mark O’Dell. The book is one part traditional sword and sorcery and one part coming of age that centers on the titular Shrew as she navigates her new life as a member of Highfall’s thieves’ guild. The story begins in the slums of Highfall, where an inevitable capture by the city guard leads Shrew to a mysterious dagger and a newfound destiny. Meanwhile, a shadowy religious sect is maneuvering itself into position to overthrow the city’s government and invoke the apocalypse. As Shrew’s bond with the mystical denizen of her dagger deepens, she and her companions find themselves dragged into a collision course with the doomsday cult that will take them on a journey from the tiered walls of Highfall to towering sylvan forests and a long lost city underground.
The early sections of The Shade of Highfall are immediately promising– Shrew’s little slice of The Duns and her escapades through an orphan workhouse are approachable and easy to get lost in thanks largely to Mark O’Dell’s strong grasp on action, adventure, and the timing that holds those scenes together. Shrew is a strong character, and it’s always fun to see her progress and hone her skills as an archetypal fantasy rogue complete with sticky fingers, an exceptional knowledge of poisons, and a penchant for acrobatics.
That said, the book is a little uneven in its characterization– while a lot of attention is paid to crafting Shrew, and rightly so, the majority of the cast feels a little too thin. Personally, I didn’t feel like enough time was spent with the other party members to make some of the emotional payoffs land as strongly as they could have.
Another high point is O’Dell’s lush settings. If you appreciate fantasy landscapes and vistas you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Highfall, which is thoroughly described from the word go and has a strong sense of atmosphere. This continues in most scenes outside of the city, especially in the incredibly detailed subterranean cityscapes which pop up throughout– in a world of rogues the sewers are important, and those in Highfall are probably the most lovingly crafted I’ve read. This level of detail can occasionally be a minor detriment, however, as there are scenes that focus far too much on setting details and don’t pay quite enough attention to dialogue or character interactions. If I had to equate the feeling to anything, it would be to playing a role-playing game wherein a ton of time was lavished on creating dungeons and city maps but not quite enough was spent on fleshing out the NPCs.
Finally, there is a minor problem throughout with regards to the political jockeying and maneuvering of the antagonists. Namely, there are a fair amount of scenes that are simply the bad guys discussing their plans and holding council, and they largely aren’t as entertaining as they could be. I can’t exactly articulate why this is the case, but I think it’s a combination of the feeling of telling rather than showing and the fact that so much worldbuilding is being stuffed into less than 400 pages that it can be a bit difficult to internalize if, like me, you’re reading at pace. It’s not that the villains aren’t intriguing, it’s just that the political side of their schemes is much less so than their hidden agenda, which we only get brief glimpses at until the climax.
All told, fans of traditional fantasy will have a lot of fun with The Shade of Highfall: The Tale of Shrew. It’s not reinventing the wheel by any means, but it feels like a throwback to a fantasy novel I’d have read in a middle school library, which is a welcome and comfortable feeling.
Rating: 7 out of 10 Exploding Seed Pods