A picaresque, Italianate shadow-magic story sequence—several elements of which have previously appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine—from poet and fantasist Chappell (Dagon, 1968, etc.).
Country bumpkin Falco arrives in the port city of Tardocco hoping to apprentice himself to shadow-dealer Maestro Astolfo. Here, shadows can exist even when detached from their primaries, and so they may be stolen, bought, sold, surrendered, borrowed, and preserved; another person’s shadow may be donned for particular effect. Astolfo, reputedly once a shadow-thief, now operates as a scholar, tutor, magician, and astute detective. Mutano, Astolfo’s hulking assistant, a mute former solder, fosters a rivalry with Falco as the latter develops his physical and mental abilities and learns the business over an episodic series of adventures or, better, capers. The early stories, slight and rather mechanical, serve as an introduction. Thereafter, the pace and complexity increase as the shadow-brokers ponder an ethereal dancer who has relinquished her shadow in order to enhance her performance. Mutano and Falco feud openly as they quest for enormously valuable but deadly plants that feed on shadows. Best of all, the pair set aside all contentions and attempt to recover Mutano’s lost voice, which was stolen by a cunning rival and stored, of all places, in a cat. The final piece, long and overinvolved, concerns an ancient ceremony and an elaborate piratical plot to capture and enslave the city. Often amusing, then, without real heft; Chappell’s frequent ventures into Elizabethan dialogue annoy rather than illuminate, though his prose shows a poet’s touch for comedy and description. One curious lacuna: the lack of significant female characters.
Given Chappell’s stellar reputation as a fantasist, more than a little disappointing, although readers who enjoyed the magazine stories will dive right in.