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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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03/24/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Shadow of the Lion"

The Shadow of The Lion
by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer
Published by Baen Books, 2002

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This review contains plot and character information that might be considered spoilers; proceed at your own risk.

This hefty paperback (913 pages!) is the work of three well known sci-fi/fantasy authors, Mercedes Lackey of the Heralds of Valdemar series, Eric Flint of the Joe's World Series, and Dave Freer, author of "Wizard of Karres". I must say it's not bad for a book that was written by committee. In it, we go back in time to the days of the Holy Roman Empire, from April 1537 to September 1538, in the city of Venice, where a magical conspiracy is afoot.

The old expression "Too many cooks spoil the broth" definitely doesn't apply here. Each of the aforementioned authors adds their own particular seasoning to the recipe for this story. They have formed a cohesive unit to tell a convincing story, set in the Renaissance Period when the Church and the State were practically one and the same. There seems to be something for everyone within the covers of this book; for lovers of historic fiction, famous people who actually lived during this time period, interacting with the fictional characters in a believable way. For lovers of romance, plenty of handsome heroes and beautiful heroines, as well as villains and villainesses; this leads to innocent love, "pure and chaste from afar", as well as steamy sex for pleasure and profit. Love of God and love of power are also represented, in the form of white and black magic. This leads us to fantasy in the form of a horrific monster imprisoned in an ancient casket, disguised as a holy relic by a false nun and the fallen priest she has seduced. There are also undines (water nymphs) swimming in the Venice canals, as well as various spirits, benevolent and malevolent, controlled by the mages, or practitioners of magic. As a costume drama it would be a ratings blockbuster, if a producer could be found who is more interested in originality than formula.

Now pay attention, because this book has an extensive cast of characters. Enough for a TV mini series, if enough high caliber actors could be found. Experience in costume dramas would be a must, which means the ability to ride a horse, use a sword, recite magic spells in Latin, row a gondola, and speak in Italian. (WARNING: Though written in English, this book contains quite a few Italian words and phrases, including a common obscenity that is easily understood if you are Latino. It also contains a few explicit, but not graphic sex scenes, so avoid it if you're easily offended.) Anyway, here are the main characters, in order of appearance:

Charles Fredrik Hohenstauffen, the Holy Roman Emperor (I see him played by Anthony Quinn), hires Erik Hakkonsen (easily played by Robert Duncan McNeil) of Clann Harald in Iceland, a young warrior whose people are bound to him by an ancestral oath, to be bodyguard and mentor to his nephew and heir Prince Manfred, a handsome young slacker who's strong as an ox and just as smart. He grows up and smartens up fast under Eric's tutorage.

Father Eneko Lopez, a Basque cleric and magician skilled in white magic (I picture Edward James Olmos in this role), and his assistants Father Diego and Father Pierre. All three are working undercover for the Holy Father in Rome to determine whether Chernobog, an ancient Slavic demon, is behind a series of magical murders in Venice. They suspect that Jagiellon (a role made for Ron Perlman), the Grand Duke of Lithuania and Poland, has been possessed by this demon. They are right; the first time we meet him, he's frying up a batch of flayed human skin with blood sauce (the remains of his last shaman) as a snack for himself and his new shaman, a subtle warning to the new guy about what to expect if he screws up.

Meanwhile, Enrico Dell'Este (what a pity Mark Lenard is no longer alive to take this role!), Duke of Ferrara, also known as the Old Fox, is trying to locate his two grandsons, 16-year-old Marco and 14-year-old Benito, who have been missing since their mother, the duke's promiscuous daughter Lorendana Valdosta, was murdered last year. Most of the action in this novel revolves around Marco and Benito, since their mother was an agent for House Dell'Este who was murdered by an agent from a rival Case Vecchie (Italian for "noble house"). After her murder, both her sons go into hiding. Young Marco spends a miserable year in the Jessalo Swamps just outside of the city, where he is taken in by the mad old sorcerer, Chiano, and his partner Sophia, an old herb woman; they teach him about medicinal herbs, as well as how to survive in the swamp. Meanwhile Benito becomes a canal brat and learns the arts of roof climbing, pocket picking, delivering messages and mysterious packages whose contents are better left unknown to shady characters, and squatting in abandoned buildings to survive in Venice.

When the two brothers are finally reunited, they decide to appeal to one of their late mother's acquaintances, Caesare Aldanto, a handsome blond Milanese mercenary (I see him played by Denis Leary) and former agent for House Montagnard. Unknown to them, Caesare is also responsible for their mother's death. He didn't actually kill her; he was in bed with her at the time and covered her mouth so she couldn't scream loud enough to wake the boys when the assassin Montagnard had hired crept in to cut her throat. Having survived an assassination attempt by his former employers, Caesare is now at liberty and willing to do anything to earn a dishonest lira. He's also tickled to death at the thought of Lorendana's boys coming to him for protection, since he needs innocent dupes to help him in his nefarious schemes. Just like Maria Garavelli (whom I see played by Nicole DeBoer), a small, dark, and feisty canal girl who makes a living as a gondolier. She rescued Caesare a year ago, after his former associates hit him over the head and threw him off a bridge into the canal, but he wound up falling into Maria's gondola. She nursed him back to health and they became lovers, but he's only using her to amuse himself while hiding out from his enemies. He lives with Maria but has two other mistresses, both Case Vecchie; one is Alessandra Montescue, the treacherous sister-in-law of young Katerina Montescue (Kate Bosworth would be wonderful in this role), known as Kat, who also works as a gondolier, smuggling illegal merchandise and magical artifacts after dark to support her impoverished noble house; the other is Angela Dorma, the young lady whom Marco falls in love with and is eventually forced to marry after she becomes pregnant by Caesare.

Confused yet? That's understandable; the whole novel is a soap opera between two covers, with enough sex, magic, mystery, action and romance to satisfy anybody who loves historic fiction. All of the aforementioned characters end up interacting with each other in some form, with plenty of coincidences and mistaken identities, as well as revelations of true identities, like when old Chiano recovers from his amnesia and remembers that he was once a powerful strega, a pagan priest, who lost his memory after surviving an occult attack by the same evildoers who are keeping the monster in a box and using it to kill their enemies, Christian and Pagan alike, in Venice. The monster is set loose at intervals in the canals of Venice, to swim up to the water door or the nearest dock of its victim's dwelling so it can rip them to pieces, devouring their souls as well as their bodies. The only thing worse than reading about how the victims were devoured was reading about how the monster itself, after a failed mission, was partially devoured by Jagiellon, who had imprisoned it in that casket in the first place. It was able to heal and regrow its missing limbs over a period of time, during which more magical mischief is perpetuated by the evildoers who control it, including a false charge of witchcraft against Kat and a murder attempt on Eric.

Over all these characters lies the shadow of the lion, which refers to the great statue of the winged lion of Saint Mark, which can be seen in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Legend says that the winged lion can be brought to life to defend the city of Venice in her hour of need, but only by a great mage descended from one of the four Case Vecchie; Terrio, Montescue, Lacosto, and Valdosta. When Venice's hour of need comes upon her, in the form of an invasion from the smaller duchies and principalities outside her borders, one of our two young heroes from Casa Valdosta becomes that mage; you'll have to read the book to find out which one.

This is definitely a good book to take on a long airline flight; it starts out slow, but then it pulls you in and doesn't let you go. A brief background investigation with my search engine revealed the fact that these three authors have worked together before on various novels, one of which, "This Rough Magic", is due to be released this summer. Could it be a sequel to "The Shadow of The Lion"? I certainly hope so! I, for one, would like to find out what happened to one of the villains who fell into Jagiellon's hands while fleeing from Venice at the story's end.

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