Lord of Secrets and Lady of Shadows

Lord of Secrets (2019) and Lady of Shadows (2020), by Breanna Teintze (Jo Fletcher  Books)

It’s axiomatic that the second created work is harder than the first, but there is another phenomenon: when someone produces a perfectly serviceable first creation, but doesn’t really hit their stride until the second, and you’re left wondering whether they should have started with the second in the first place. Example: the first two novels by new writer Breanna Teintze. The first is merely good, the second much better.

So, what do you get? First of all, Teintze deals quite handily with the question to be answered in any fantasy featuring wizards: if these people can do that, why aren’t they running the world? There are three (known, so far) types of magic. In the most common and least harmful form, spells are performed by scribing them in runes, then pronouncing them. The spell might have been scribed in advance and awaiting someone to say it out loud, or the wizard might write it down – often on their own skin, to save time – and then say it. Thus a wizard’s most dangerous tool can be a grease pencil. The downside of this kind of magic is that it’s toxic in every way – physically, mentally, spiritually. The runes will corrode whatever they’re written on, given time, which is why very few spells are written down and a spell scribed in grease paint should be wiped off as soon as possible. Speaking the spell will then leave the speaker with at best a blinding headache, at worst a debilitating lassitude if they don’t go and have a good lie-down at the right time.

Still, like toxic chemicals in our own society, this kind of magic has a place, if handled with care by professionals. Wizards (who can be male or female) must be licensed by a Guild controlled by a charter. A steady source of tension is that this charter, like many old documents written to address particular circumstances, may just have outlived its usefulness and relevance.

The other two magics – necromancy and alchemy – have access to deeper, darker powers. Thus practitioners of these types tend to be the villains of the piece. Two supposed gods – the Lord and the Lady of the two titles – started out that way. Their kind of magic is just flat-out illegal: if you meet someone practicing either form then you know they’re a bad’un. They can be defeated, by enough people using ‘proper’ magic the proper way, or by cunning, or strength, or any combination of these, and they are still mortal with mortal limitations – so they tend not to rule the world either. Or, indeed, want to, as long as they can get what they want by other means.

Next, Teintze is happy to let sheer plot logic dictate what befalls her characters, and the result is an unpredictability and natural, unforced feel that keeps you turning the pages. Lord of Secrets opens in media res. Corcoran Gray, a renegade ex-member of the Guild, is on the run from the authorities. He finds the Guild to have outgrown its usefulness and, worse, it’s ridden with corruption. By the end of page 1 he’s met Brix, the future love of his life, who is the daughter of a tribe of people who can absorb and neutralise magical toxicity without actually using magic themselves – so, a very handy source of slaves for the less scrupulous wizards.

An adventure follows in which temples must be broken into, magic labyrinths navigated and in which Gray gets to meet the eponymous Lord of Secrets. Up to this point the setting seems very similar to any fantasy world from Leiber onwards and you’re being carried along by the relationship between Gray and Brix, the mystery that is slowly unveiling itself through a strategic series of clues and answers, and Gray’s sheer run of bad luck. The novel really gets going after the labyrinth scene, with the Lord of Secrets now a player in the story, an on/off ally of convenience, and not just a dead god in the background. He’s an excellent villain – the kind you would almost root for if it weren’t for the fact that he’s evil and trying to raise his own undead army and in short needs to be stopped. This is also where twists start to emerge, and then we’re hit with the kind of surprise ending that in retrospect you really should have seen coming, but the fact is, you didn’t. The best kind, in other words.

Lady of Shadows stands alone but also carries straight on from the end of the first book. The problems with which Gray began the first book have been resolved, only to be replaced by even worse ones that have emerged as a natural result of the plot and without any contrivance on the author’s part. Teintze has hit her stride with more adventure, less traipsing around and a plot just as involving as before. There is also an edge of your seat, life or death magical duel of the kind Lord of Secrets could have had more of.

The world of the novels is the kind you get where the world isn’t really the point of the story, it’s just somewhere for the action to happen and you’re not meant to worry about it. It’s not meant to be another Middle Earth or Land or Westeros or Earthsea, which might disappoint readers who like to immerse themselves completely in the milieu, world and all.

Each book stands alone, but they are best read in sequence as a series. If the curve continues then book 3 will be very good indeed.