Rating: 3.75 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Forced from innocent child to assassin’s apprentice, and cybernetically altered at eighteen, Fulvio has been transformed into Umbra—the city of Florydia’s guardian. Fulvio is a silent source of justice, embracing the shadows to protect and avenge those exploited and forgotten by the Nobili, no matter if he has to steal or kill to do it. When tasked with stealing a mask from a museum, Fulvio’s curiosity leads him to an otherworldly place.

Soleluna is an alchemist whose brilliant mind and ego led them astray. They wanted to blaze their own path to immortality, which they did, but at a steep cost. Soleluna’s life was cut short; their anticipated place in history erased; and their consciousness entombed in circuits attached to a mask where they have lived in almost uninterrupted solitude for close to 800 years. Though initially annoyed by Fulvio’s presence in their domain, Soleluna accepts his offer to show them the world through his eyes. Fulvio was shaped by his mentor to be her apolitical hand of justice, and he is happy to do so. Yet, finding Soleluna prods the curiosity hidden under his complacency. Together, they begin to connect seemingly unrelated events that speak to a larger picture. Despite admonishments to the contrary, Fulvio becomes increasingly involved in games of conspiracy that could bring Florydia closer to the light or plunge it deeper into the dark.

Umbra: Tales of Shadow is an entertaining story. While it contains a love story and has romantic elements, it is not a romance and follows the vigilante Fulvio and the intellectual Soleluna as they delve into a conspiracy. Though Fulvio flies with cybernetic wings called Icarus, Soleluna embodies that character. Their belief in their own brilliance blinded them, but they have accepted their fate as penance. With only a cantankerous owl to keep them company, Soleluna has created Florydia and a life for themself within their cage. Though very Garbo-esque in their insistence to be left alone, when Fulvio offers them a way to experience a future they never hoped to see, they cannot turn down the chance. Dubbing themselves Fulvio’s conscience, Soleluna constantly mocks and chides Fulvio for his ignorance an unrepentant annoyingness, but they see the potential in him and open his eyes to it. Fulvio likes his uncomplicated and unexamined life, but Soleluna challenges him in many ways, especially in his unquestioning acceptance of being a tool for another’s vision. Fulvio has a curious nature, but is impatient and prefers not to think deeply, so if he can’t get a quick answer, he smiles and moves on. Soleluna’s almost constant presence in his head pushes him to question and think. They share their wisdom with Fulvio and help him become the best version of himself, while unexpectedly receiving the same from him.

If you have ever played Assassin’s Creed or consumed any rooftop-loving vigilante media, than you will recognize Fulvio. His prowess is almost supernatural and that’s before his final form. Fulvio is a charismatic, light-hearted charmer. He steals a kiss as he steals your possessions and is forgiven with simply a smile. He can enchant someone, even as he slaughters people in front of them. He laughs freely, is quick to tease, and loves hastily, but as Florydia’s embodiment, his easy-going side is paired with a merciless and wrathful one. Although he wasn’t given a choice in becoming Umbra, he took to it as if he was born to do so and finds purpose and honor in his duty. Fulvio and Soleluna are foils and yet the same. They exemplify the type of duality in which the individual components are in extreme opposition, yet co-exist in balance when combined. Both were both stagnant, but determined to remain so. Fulvio has deep pain and fear, but embraces complacency to ignore it, while Soleluna embraces their solitary existence as punishment for their hubris. Soleluna is an unrepentant curmudgeon, while Fulvio is a social butterfly, but they are both masters of their crafts. Through their relationship, the pair complete a circuit.

Florydia is a blend of cyberpunk and traditional Venetian aesthetics. The techo elements and Soleluna and Fulvio’s neuro-connection are standard for the subgenre, but Clark does a great job making it their own because of the MCs’ dynamic. Florydia is a character in and of itself and, like the MCs, is a tapestry of dualities in need of balance. Its older areas lie in the shadows of glaring and obscenely loud modernity. The cybernetic augmentations range from gaudy to gruesome, but are often paired with cherished regalia and signifiers of Florydian history. It is the city of evolution; yet, its leaders religiously fall into the trap of corruption, keeping Florydia in a state of decay. With Florydia being so vibrant, attempts to expand the scope of world fall short and is one of the weaker aspects of the world building in the story. Other countries are mentioned occasionally and have names like Empiria and Cybernetica to shorthand that country’s values, but their presence serves no purpose, so detracts instead of enriches.

As Florydia operates on the ageless and seemingly unchanging engine of violence, corruption, and greed, so too does the plot rely on old school methods of government overthrow—assassination. From courtesans to members of the upper echelons, almost everyone is skilled in the art of death, usually entwined with seduction. Thus, the plot is intrigue and murders punctuated by philosophical doctrine. For the most part, Clark makes all these elements flow into one another naturally, typically through Fulvio’s and Soleluna’s friendship. Fulvio’s breezily happy ignorance and Soleluna’s disgruntled professorial manner allows the heavier information to develop in an organic way, but there are times when the ruminations feel more lecture, less avenue for character development. While the writing style fits the story and there are some lovely concepts and passages, it didn’t always work for me. Personally, I prefer when commentary and themes are more subtle, especially in a 500+ page book. Continual allusions and upfront reminders feel repetitious and less impactful.

However, I really enjoyed Clarks’ use of alchemy to convey the story’s major theme; alchemy’s foundation in transmutation makes it a perfect vehicle. I appreciated the in-depth inclusion of alchemical and natural philosophy. The magical properties of the alchemists’ immortality and their creations arise from nature, and are crafted by dedication to knowledge, rigorous practice, and sacrifice. I do think that since alchemy is the infrastructure upon which the theme is built, the narrative would have benefited from earlier clarification of some terminology. I understood the essence of what terms tossed into conversation, like The Reddening or The Process, but their complete nature isn’t addressed until almost the end. Given their importance and that the narrative has many a philosophical soliloquy, I think there could have been some explanations sprinkled in earlier. I did like many of the characters and, of course, found the alchemists to be the most interesting. As purveyors of knowledge with centuries worth of life under their belts, they are the most fleshed out. Fulvio’s inner circle, Donatella and Francesco, round out Fulvio’s crew, though I was disappointed by Cesco’s lack of development. He’s relegated to “the man in the chair” and is mostly forgotten when his tech knowledge isn’t needed. For a story about growth, it’s telling that he’s the only one who stays the same. As a mercenary, Donatella has more presence in the story, but honestly, I think if she wasn’t also one of Fulvio’s lovers, she may have gotten the Cesco treatment.

This illustrates some of the structural unevenness in the story. Some important characters are named dropped then disappear for long stretches. While this isn’t uncommon in a large cast or conspiracy plot, when the characters are addressed with multiple titles and have similar names, their spread out appearances meant double-checking to make sure I didn’t miss something or confuse one person with another. Additionally, in the run-up to the final act, there are full-on character arcs with people that have only briefly appeared that are so abrupt they signpost major involvement. There are also technical elements that worked against the story, including malapropisms, such as “This temporary lie was convenient to all parts involved,” some awkward sentences/dialogue, and many repetitive descriptors. I saw the word “goggled” more times than in all my reading history combined and copious smirking is performed by all the characters, not just the roguish, walking smirk that is Fulvio. There are also. . .unique words choices that, while correct by the strictest definition, are odd given their context.

Although some of the individual elements may not have resonated with me, as I whole, I did find Umbra: Tales of a Shadow to be an enjoyable read that I think fans of cyberpunk and queer-normative societies may like as well.