'In the Palace of Shadow and Joy' Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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'In the Palace of Shadow and Joy' Review

Alexander Wallace enjoys some fantasy fun!
Thieves. When we’re not the ones being robbed, we love them. They are one particular subcategory of rogue, who we love as a category. For those citizens of developed countries who would consider themselves to be upstanding and law-abiding, there is an unbreakable allure around crime and criminals; Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are rich because of it. It goes beyond that, with Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the social bandit, a category that can be found the world over. D. J. Butler looks at two such bandits in his 2020 fantasy novel In the Palace of Shadow and Joy.

These bandits are Indrajit and Fix. Indrajit is the latest in a long line of poets of his people whose life mission is to memorize and add to the history of their culture. Fix is a down-on-his-luck bandit who needs another job, and soon. They are hired to protect the life of Ilsa, an opera singer in the titular Palace of Shadow and Joy, the foremost opera house in the city in which these two souls happen to live.
One of the things that permeates the story of In the Palace of Shadow and Joy is the practice of risk-merchantry, a form of gambling (for is that not what the insurance industry is?) on the likelihood of certain enterprises to succeed or fail. In a real sense, it is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is a system that is rather hard to understand, and the explanation only goes so far (but my economics courses were not my strength in college). On the other hand, it gives off the impression of an entire criminal underworld run by a hundred clones of Milo Minderbinder, a kafkaesque system that makes the confusion shown by the protagonists all the more stark.

The strange things that risk-merchantry as a system necessitates takes you on a whirlwind ride throughout the city, and what a ride it is. You see both the highs and the lows of society, as the actors in this opéra féerie are more varied than you might first expect. You visit the opera house several times, seeing the cross-section of society resident therein, as well as both palaces and slums. It’s an adventure in the grand tradition, with both Indrajit and Fix suffering so that you will be entertained (but that’s what adventure is, after all).

The two main characters are a traditional bandit duo, and provide the satisfaction that a good example thereof should. The razor-sharp wit and banter between them is both riotously funny and develops them as characters; it is the humor brought about by the wide disparity between the characters’ backgrounds that makes it feel oh so real. I’ve known many odd incidents brought about by culture clashes (time travel fiction runs on it) and it felt very true-to-life in that way.

In the Palace of Shadow and Joy is pure, simple fantasy fun, the sort that has endured because it, as a technique, simply works. Butler knows how to spin a thrilling yarn, and what a tangled web he weaves. Those looking for another fantasy read will be well served here.

(This book was provided as an ARC by its publisher, Baen Books)

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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