I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
Warning: this book contains some torture. Although I didn't consider the physical aspects to be very graphic, the emotional aspects are awful, and the book ends without giving readers a chance to see how well the character manages to recover.
Although most of Fletcher's Celaeno series could be read in any order, I would advise newbies not to start with Shadow of the Knife, even though it's chronologically the first book (it takes place 14 years before Rangers at Roadsend). While the overall story would probably make sense, I think this is the only book in the series that doesn't explain why there are no men on Celaeno, and how reproduction works there.
This was my last unread Celaeno book. I was both looking forward to it and dreading it, because, once I finished it, that would be it – I haven't been able to find any signs that Fletcher is still writing, much less that she plans to write more in this series. Okay, so the world-building has serious problems, the pacing often isn't very good, and the books tend to end too suddenly. I know all of that, and yet something about this series really works well for me. Rangers at Roadsend and The Walls of Westernfort were my favorites, and I was hoping Shadow of the Knife would be as good or better.
Shadow of the Knife stars Ellen Mittal, a rookie in the Roadsend Militia. Farmers in the area have had hundreds of sheep stolen from them, and the Militia hasn't managed to find a single one. Ellen, increasingly frustrated with the uselessness of the Militia's efforts, talks to a Ranger friend of hers and ends up becoming involved in a deeper investigation into the thefts, which may have something to do with a gang in Eastford led by a woman known as the Mad Butcher. Ellen's life is further complicated by Hal, a new farmer in Roadsend who is either genuinely interested in her or somehow involved in the sheep thefts.
I'll start by saying that I think this might be the best-written Celaeno book. There were still some issues with the pacing, but thankfully they were due more to Fletcher's choice of protagonist than to world-building infodumping. Ellen's status as a rookie meant that she missed out on a lot of the action and strategic planning in the first half of the book, which in turn made me feel like I was missing out on the most exciting parts of the story. Things got better later on, after Ellen was promoted and given more freedom to investigate on her own. It made me wish Fletcher had chosen to write her as an older and more experienced member of the Militia.
Of course, if Fletcher had done that she would have also had to rework a few of her other choices. Not that I would have minded. Ellen seemed painfully young compared to Hal, and their romance rubbed me the wrong way right from the start. I couldn't quite get a handle on Hal, who seemed like she should have had her pick of potential lovers and yet for some reason was drawn to easily flustered Ellen. I ignored my misgivings, however, because I figured that this would be a fantasy with romantic aspects, like the other Celaeno books. Ellen would doubt Hal's intentions and suspect her of being involved in the thefts, Hal would prove her trustworthiness, and together they'd foil the villains and find love.
Sometimes when things go the way you expect them to, it's boring. It can be nice when a story shakes things up a bit. It can also be horrible. My review is going to include some spoilers from here on out, because I can't figure out how to write about this without revealing too much.
Of all the Celaeno books, this one is hands down the darkest and most depressing. After four books worth of SFF with romantic aspects, I don't think it was out of line to expect that this one would give me something similar. I'm incredibly sad and upset that my last unread Celaeno book turned out to be such an enormous betrayal of expectations.
How am I supposed to rate something like this? On the one hand, part of me regrets reading this book, and I doubt I'll ever want to reread it. Just putting my thoughts in order so that I could write this review was draining enough. On the other hand, I really do think Fletcher's writing has gotten better, and Ellen's confused emotions during and after her captivity felt believable. Horrible, but believable.
I'm so deeply disappointed in this book that part of me thinks it deserves a half-star rating. Another part of me thinks I should rate it a bit higher than I am, because it packed such a serious emotional punch, even if those emotions were not the ones I wanted or expected. I settled on 1.5-stars. I feel like I might as well have thrown a dart at the entire 3-stars-and-less range.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)