Today I am reviewing The Shield Road by Dewi Hargreaves. This one is a bit different from my usual reviews for a few reasons. The first is because I am working from a digital ARC. The second is because The Shield Road is not a traditional novel. Rather, it is a collection of interwoven short stories. This caused me some mental gymnastics with my categories, but we’ll get on to that in a minute.
Full disclosure, I did receive this ARC for free with the expectation that I would review it. This however does not impact my opinions in any way, shape, or form. My thoughts, as always, are my own.
About the Author
Dewi Hargreaves is a UK-based fantasy author and illustrator of absolutely stunning maps (yes, I’m editorializing and fan-girl-ing just a little bit. I love maps, leave me alone). Check out the amazing map he made of the world in The Shield Road.
As with most books I’ve reviewed lately, I wound up reading The Shield Road through my interactions with the author on Twitter. You can find him here.
About the Book
I don’t have the absolute final print version in front of me, but the PDF was about 154 pages to give you an idea.
It will be available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and ebook from Kobo at the end of March.
I can only speak to the digital version at this time, but I really like the cover on this one. It’s simple, clean and fitting to the genre. I love the blue-on-blue monochrome. The lettering is well contrasted and very legible. Five teaspoons.
This review is a little unusual in the sense that I don’t have a physical book, nor a final ebook. I’m reviewing from a PDF ARC. Now, the formatting of that ARC is beautifully done, but since it’s not the final book I am not going to count my rating for the interior towards the final rating. Still, it’s great.
So for design I give the book 5 teaspoons based on the exterior.
The Shield Road begins as a collection of interwoven short stories. Each character begins with their own goals and their own mission, introduced independently. At first, it’s really difficult to see how they will all come together, but still very intriguing. Although this is not stated outright, I took the Shield Road to not be the literal road the characters are following so much as a metaphor for the life they are leading and the adventure awaiting them.
Of the few short story collections I’ve read, none have really had this idea of forming a larger plot. Usually, you see something more like a collection of short fairytale retellings or even unrelated stories. I quite like the idea of weaving together a larger tale from independent stories. In a way, reading The Shield Road is not really all that different from reading a normal novel, but I could totally see reading any one of these in a fantasy lit magazine and enjoying it by itself.
Premise is 5 teaspoons.
The one downside to the format of this book is perhaps that there’s just so many named characters, and we don’t get to hang out with any one of them for very long at first. Still, Hargeaves manages to pack great pieces of characterization into each and every story. Each individual feels real and fleshed out in their moment. Then, as the stories come together, we start to focus in more on specific characters, such as the Bladekin and the Princess.
The single character with the most depth in my opinion is Talfrin, the Bladekin. Most of the later stories focus on him and the characters who join him in the main conflict of the series. The inner turmoil that Talfrin feels is palpable, and the changes in his character as he’s impacted by certain forces are slow and devious.
Characters gets 5 teaspoons.
What’s interesting about this book is because it is a grouping of short stories there’s really a plethora of plots I could discuss. There’s also a common thread weaving through them that is fascinating. As I read each story, I found myself wondering how its individual puzzle piece would fit into the overall picture. I was not disappointed.
I give plot on both the individual story level and overall 5 teaspoons.
I don’t know how Hargreaves crams so much worldbuilding into each individual story. The art of showing “just enough” is difficult when writing a novel, but in my opinion it is even more difficult in a short story. Each of Hargreave’s stories has enough worldbuilding to be enjoyable and understood as its own unit. And yet, together they create a sprawling landscape. Masterfully done. 5 teaspoons.
I am absolutely in love with Hargreaves’s prose. It’s just… chef’s kiss. Despite the tight format of the short stories, there’s so much evocative detail. I think the best way to describe it would be to say that there is a very “literary” quality to it. Once again, 5 teaspoons.
I very rarely give out 5 star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Part of the reason for this is because to me “meets expectations” is 3 stars. That means I found the story entertaining and the author hit the bare minimum for character and plot. A 4 is a book I genuinely enjoyed. A 5 is “blew my socks off.” To date, I have given only one 5 teaspoon review on the blog, although I also came very close with M.A. Vice’s Birthright.
So, a 5 teaspoon review is a very high bar to clear. Hargeaves cleared it with room to spare with The Shield Road. He pulled off what can be a very tricky format with grace and aplomb. I was fascinated right up until the very end of the book. And although the conclusion was satisfying, I was still left craving more. I really hope we get to see more of the rich world he has created in future works.