The Shadows of God, the conclusion of J. Gregory Keyes’ “Age of Unreason” series, is a thrilling ride through war, mysticism, and a little bit of love. The characters have been through a lot in the last fifteen years or so, and this is the culmination of everything. While the ending is not quite as good as I would have hoped, Keyes still manages to keep the reader intrigued, racing to the end to see exactly how it turns out. While not completely unpredictable, there is enough uncertainty for the story to keep a hold of the reader.
Ben Franklin has finally made it to the French court in the New Orleans area, where the former Duke of Orleans is now the only remaining French king. He’s trying desperately to set up an alliance among all of the former colonies. Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to hem the colonies in on the west while English troops come from the east. The demon-like Malekim, are making their final play for dominion on the Earth, and if humans manage to even come close to stopping them, they will unleash a horror that has never been seen before. The key to everything could end up being Adrienne de Montchevreuil, a French sorceress who may know more science than Franklin and more magic than Red Shoes, the Choctaw shaman who may or may not be on the side of good. Will they all be able to stop the Malekim while there is still enough left of the colonies to celebrate the victory?
This entire series has been a fascinating alternate history with sorcery and alchemy playing a major part and historical figures we’re all familiar with mixing with characters that Keyes has made up. The Shadows of God continues this, though the story has gone so much more beyond alternate history that it is almost unrecognizable. Instead, it’s a fantasy with historical trappings, with Franklin, Tsar Peter, and Voltaire being the only recognizable historical figures left. This is not a bad thing, as Keyes once again does a wonderful job of characterization. I said in my review of Empire of Unreason that Red Shoes had become thoroughly uninteresting. This time, however, Keyes succeeds in grabbing the reader’s attention with him again. He’s fighting an evil that he has absorbed within him, one that has caused him to do terrible things. How he deals with this, with the help of Grief, his lover, made me want to read his sections of the book again (unlike the earlier book).
Once again, Franklin and Adrienne are also extremely well-done. Also well done is Oglethorpe, the general of the colonial armies who are fighting the invading English and Russian troops. He shows a lot of intelligence in his battle tactics, using the resources that he has been given (a couple of airships, some magical guns) to their utmost. He’s also learned to deal with his prejudices and command a mixed group of men (escaped and freed slaves, Native Americans, and some colonists). Before leading the army, he had been a slaveowner, but the escaped slaves become some of his best scouts, and it’s interesting to see the change in his perception as he sheds his English sensibilities and becomes an “American.”
I really like how Keyes has created a number of interesting characters, but he resists the urge to get inside all of their heads. For most of the first three books, the only viewpoint characters have been Franklin, Adrienne, and Red Shoes (Red Shoes being introduced in A Calculus of Angels). Oglethorpe is introduced in Empire of Unreason and also becomes a viewpoint character, but that is it. Instead, Keyes manages to show us what’s inside the characters by their actions and words, rather than thoughts. The king of New France is a great example of this. We can tell that he is horrified about what has happened to his old country, and he certainly doesn’t want the responsibility of bringing New France up by its bootstraps, but he is a patriot and willing to do whatever is necessary for the good of his people. He loves science but can be blinded by his subordinates when it comes to politics. All of the characters are three-dimensional despite us not being able to hear what they think.
The only exception to this, and it leads into the other fault with the book, are Tsar Peter and Charles, King of Sweden. Peter gets a little more characterization when he’s rescued, but once the final battle begins and Charles shows up (his sworn enemy), they become nothing but bluster and ultimately the interest plummets. The results of their final battle are completely predictable (only the magnitude of what happens is in question). Their characterization is a symptom of the fact that the ending just becomes one huge battle with flashes of characterization from a few sources. There’s nothing wrong with having a big battle at the end of a book, and Keyes does a decent job describing the action, but it seemed like a sidebar to the mystical element of the story, giving the characters something to drive them to the conclusion rather than something to care about itself. We’re already told that the Malekim will do something drastic if their human pawns’ plans are defeated, so dramatically the battle doesn’t really serve a lot of purpose.
That being said, The Shadows of God is still riveting for the most part, and a fitting conclusion to the entire story. The ending, while slightly predictable, leaves things in an interesting way. It doesn’t call for a sequel at all. Instead, it’s more of a “these characters have a lot of work ahead of them” feeling. It’s satisfying to see the old friends you’ve been reading about for four books finally getting a rest. At least those who survive, at any rate.