From the author of the Greatwinter Trilogy (Souls in the Great Machine, 1999, etc.), a brilliantly inventive, marvelously plotted sea-faring fantasy that both mocks and surpasses genre expectations. In a vaguely medieval parallel-Earth (with mysterious links to our own) in which humans have two hearts, horses have claws instead of hooves, the moon has rings, and sorcerers cast complicated spells by manipulating “etheric” energies, the Shadowmoon seems a mere runt of a ship: unarmed, undermanned, with drably painted sails and a hold too small for big cargo. Those who sail it, including the Faron, its lusty boatmaster, and Laron, a seven-century-old vampire trapped in a fourteen-year-old body, know that the Shadowmoon is a spy ship, a primitive submarine capable of sneaking into ports and venturing farther upriver than conventional ships. The boat’s crew members, with a rather large cast including the wily witch Terikel, the duplicitous eunuch Druskarl, and the megalomaniacal Warsovran (war sovereign), are committed to finding, exploiting, or destroying an ancient “etheric” weapon called Silverdeath. When dormant, Silverdeath resembles a chain mail tunic; a human host must be found to wear, and thus activate, the weapon. As a perverse gift, Silverdeath “repairs” its host human, turning the middle-aged Warsovran into a strapping youth, and, in one of the best scenes, “optimizing” the powerful vampire Laron back into a puny, living being (Laron immediately laments, “I wish I was dead,” then is reminded that, because he is no longer dead, he must use the subjunctive “were”). Australian author McMullen writes like Roger Zelazny at the peak of his powers: his dashing, flamboyant, cleverly resourceful characters trade off insults and reveal surprising abilities as they swagger bravely from one hair-raising scene to another.
Exciting, suspenseful, vividly believable, and great, clever fun: a major fantasy-award contender.