The First of Shadows by Deck Matthews {SPFBO5 Semi-finalist}

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Slowly but surely I’m working my way through all of the semi-finalists this year! I went from one novella to another trying to gain a little better perspective on what to expect from short stories since it’s rare when I read them. Boy did I pick two polar opposite novellas!

This one had a bit of a learning curve, right from the first few pages there are worldbuilding specific terms that aren’t explained, you just have to guess through context and continue to read for it to make sense. It’s also clear from the beginning that magic is a big part of the story, with multiple disciplines of magic showing up in the first chapter, as well as demons and other fantastical elements this feels like a high fantasy right away.

This has more stylistic prose than some of my other recent reads. I wouldn’t call it ‘purple’ but it’s definitely not utilitarian. There are lots of descriptions that bring together great visuals and imagery. I have a difficult time imagining faces, places, and landscapes in my head unless the descriptions are fantastic. However, I benefit from sensory writing that isnt visual based. I can feel the chill, feel the heat, the breeze, smell the smells, etc when written well.

A bleak tone and grim expectations are set early on as well.

The first was that there was always a stronger enemy. Bigger. Crueller. The second was that where strength failed, guile could often prevail.

There’s a vague plotline that starts to show around five percent, so again, pretty early on you’re going to know if you’re going to like this or not. The MC hints that he must get north, and that people he loves depend on him for their safety, and he’s worried about failing them- it gives a sense of urgency and tension.

Even though this is a shorter book, the plot was actually quite intricate all things considered. There was a series of deaths going on in the city, people were dropping dead of what appeared to be “burn out’, when you lose control of your magic and you turn into a waxy grey corpse. A few people linked to the Throne as well as accomplished magic wielders are all falling dead to this unfortunate user-error in quick succession, raising questions from the Queen. The Queen insists on an investigation and things move on from there

The number of POV’s prevented me from sinking my teeth into any one particular character. I felt like just as I was getting into the groove with one character it would switch me to someone else. This is another very short book and it really tried to cover as much territory as possible. Coming off the other novella on the same day this had a completely different feel to it. This felt like the cliff notes to a huge epic series, or maybe a short story spin off of a much larger series. Things were just a bit rushed, I wanted things to be more fleshed out and have more depth. Because there were so many different POVs the main plot felt just a little bit muddied and disjointed at times. It felt like there was just too much being crammed into a tiny amount of page space. If things had been drawn out a bit more it could have breathing room and could allow its strengths like world-building shine. I think the magic system and religion in this world sounded fascinating, tell me more, please.

All in all, I liked this and my only real complaint is that I wanted to know more about almost everything. I would absolutely read another story from this world or a larger epic series.


  • Plot: 11/15
  • Characters: 11/15
  • World Building: 12.5/15
  • Writing: 13/15
  • Pacing: 12.5/15
  • Originality: 13/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 7/10

Final Score: 80/100