Author: Elaine Cunningham
Published: June 1996
I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. Silver Shadows, one of the last Harpers novels and retroactively the third installment in Cunningham’s Songs and Swords series, gives us more time with some of the richest and most interesting characters in the Realms books thus far. Even a mediocre book by Cunningham is generally more fun to read than the last few slogs I’ve waded through, so let’s dive right in and see what she’s given us this time.
I really appreciate that Cunningham isn’t afraid to shake things up with each novel instead of falling into a formula. Elfshadow, her successful debut novel, paired up Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann, an odd couple of Harpers who complemented each other perfectly and generated great character conflicts. It would have been so easy to go back to the same well and churn out more road trip buddy stories about the two of them. Instead, Elfsong, the sequel, was all about Danilo’s solo adventures in Waterdeep, and now Silver Shadows is all about Arilyn on her own in Tethyr. They’re three very different books in terms of cast and plot, and they stand up well as individual stories even if you haven’t read the others.
When last we saw Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann, the Harpers had sent them on a mission to prevent a coup d’état in the strife-torn country of Tethyr . Turns out that they succeeded! I know what you’re thinking: the Harpers accomplishing something without screwing it up or having it turn into a giant mess? It feels so out of character, and yet so refreshing! But the fallout from their success forces Danilo to flee the country to avoid assassination, leaving Arilyn to tie up some loose ends alone. Some malefactor is trying to spark a race war by making it look like the wild elves of the Forest of Tethir  are killing humans who pass near the forest. Both the Harpers and the elves of Evermeet want the situation resolved, and Arilyn is the nearest representative of both, so she’s thrust into a new investigation.
This dovetails neatly with plenty of other conflicts. Arilyn has to masquerade as a full moon elf to the wild elves or else they’ll likely kill her on sight, but the deception takes a toll on her. On a personal level, Arilyn is trying to work out how she feels about Danilo; she knows he loves her, but she’s so emotionally closed-off that she doesn’t know what to do about it. She also learns, to her horror, that the cost of mastering her moonblade is having her soul trapped in the sword after her death to empower its magic. What’s more, it seems like she might have inadvertently tethered Danilo’s soul to the sword too. On an external level, her sleuthing uncovers a conspiracy of greedy humans, all of whom are at odds with each other as well, plus her main contact in the Tethyrian government is a feckless, conniving bastard who sees an opportunity to use Arilyn to his own advantage.
It’s a very tight setup where the plot ties directly into the characters’ problems. The conflict between elves and humans mirrors Arilyn’s inability to reconcile her human and elven sides: she deftly navigates difficult interactions in both cultures, but never feels comfortable or accepted in either. By solving one problem, she solves the other. In the process of protecting the Forest of Tethir she gradually wins the acceptance of the wild elves, comes to terms with her feelings for Danilo, decides how she’d like to dispose her soul in the afterlife, and finally reconciles with her racist elven grandmother.
Silver Shadows isn’t all about Arilyn, though. We see events through the eyes of the wild elves and the villains as well, but as with Elfsong, the constant switching of point-of-view isn’t detrimental to the story because every scene directly develops the main plot somehow. There are no wasted scenes and few easily cuttable ones, and seeing the same situation from a variety of perspectives makes the plot stronger — you know what drives everybody and what’s at stake. I won’t go too in-depth with a plot summary here, however, since I’m warier about spoiling the good books than the bad ones.
I’ve had a running complaint about both previous novels in the Songs and Swords series: the plots are intricate and interesting, but they sometimes rely on bald contrivance or unexplained coincidences to move the pieces around on the chessboard. Silver Shadows is much better in that respect than its predecessors, except for one glaring example that nagged me throughout the entire book. While on a completely unrelated assignment, Arilyn finds the body of one of her elven ancestors in suspended animation in the basement of some random Tethyrian palace. Why is this elf not dead? How did she get in this particular basement? How unlikely is it that Arilyn would just stumble across it? No answers. It’s a fairly important plot point, so the irritation is hard to ignore. Even just a couple sentences of explanation would have gone a long way towards not making it feel like a major ass pull.
Silver Shadows overlaps chronologically with Elfsong in a rather clever way. The first half of this book is spent putting all the pieces in place for the main conflict, and then the precipitating incident that puts Arilyn in conflict’s path is the same incident that causes Danilo to retreat to Waterdeep at the start of Elfsong. We see the intro scene from Elfsong through Arilyn’s eyes this time; the dialogue plays out the same, but her perceptions and internal narration are very different from Danilo’s. After that point, Danilo is ejected from this story and goes off to hunt crazy bards in the North so that Arilyn can pursue her quest for self-identity on her own.
Arilyn is still one of the most fun Realms characters to date. She’s extraordinarily talented, but her talents are balanced out with interesting flaws: intransigence, impatience, a lack of self-awareness, and an occasional streak of cold viciousness. She never quite loses the reader’s sympathy, though, thanks to her inner vulnerability and a dark, sardonic wit:
“Tell me, or I’ll skewer you like a roasting rabbit!”
“But I’m a halfling,” Suldusk protested in a piercing whine that carried to every corner of the tavern. “I’m but half your size!”
The half-elf smiled coldly. “So I’ll use a short sword.”
I was initially skeptical about the idea of a novel where Arilyn doesn’t have a regular foil character to strike sparks off of. She’s the sort of aggressive, stubborn person who defines herself in opposition to others, so having her interact with someone who’s drastically different from her is a great way to flesh her out. But I should have had more faith in the author, because her heaping pile of internal and external conflicts give her plenty of ways to strike sparks on her own.
Arilyn finally gets a romance subplot of sorts, which makes for good character development for such a defensive loner. Danilo admits his feelings for her just before he’s forced to flee to Waterdeep, and she spends the rest of the novel trying to decide what she wants to do about it. When she falls into a brief relationship with Foxfire, a wild elven leader that she’s working with to thwart the humans, the decision becomes even more difficult. Embodying the conflict between her human and elven sides in the form of two potential suitors is a great way to sell her inner conflict without having her sit around and spew Drizzt-style angsty narration. When she eventually chooses Danilo, it’s a satisfying conclusion that works much better than the tacked-on, tell-don’t-show relationships that pass for romance in some of these novels. In fact, all of the relationships here are pretty great! People generally treat each other like adults, talk out their problems, and try to understand each other rather than acting like children to stir up extra drama.
The only glaring flaw in Arilyn’s characterization in Elfshadow was her career as the Harpers’ principled assassin, a professional murderer so uncomfortable with the idea of killing an unarmed person that she’d “assassinate” evildoers by picking fights with them and then killing them in combat. It was a goofy way to keep her from getting too morally grey, so I was happy to see that here Cunningham has finally embraced the greyness. Arilyn’s now a full-fledged member of the Tethyrian assassins’ guild, employing her talents in stealth and bloodshed to further her cover for her Harper activities. Her sword still won’t let her shed innocent blood, so she picks targets who eminently deserve her attention or takes jobs that require infiltration without murder, but her grim profession still leaves a fair number of corpses in her wake. Story-wise, it also provides a convenient reason for trouble to come looking for her, since the only way to get promoted in the guild is to kill a higher-ranking assassin.
There’s one scene, unfortunately, where the author goes overboard on the practical violence seemingly without realizing it. At one point, Arilyn and Ferret blow up a large manor full of people as part of a heist, certainly killing dozens of the employees and inhabitants. The ensuing chaos, panic, and bloodshed is vividly described, but neither of the protagonists seem to notice the moral consequences of their actions and it’s never mentioned again. (Frustratingly, it’s not even made clear why they had to blow it up in the first place instead of quietly going back out the way they came in.)
On the other hand I quite enjoyed Ferret, a wild elf who goes undercover among humans as a guild assassin in order to help her tribe, because she’s so delightfully grey. She’s calculating, deceptive, and doesn’t give a shit about killing humans, but cares deeply for her tribe and the forest and is better able to understand humans than the other elves. Having remorseless killers on both sides of the conflict torpedoes the black-and-white morality that too many of these novels indulge in, and she spends the first half of the novel as a potential enemy for Arilyn before they team up.
The other side characters are fairly well done. Foxfire, the wild elven war leader, is particularly good: he’s thoughtful and clever, empathetic to those around him, and doing his best to understand the Outside Context Problem his people find themselves in. He treats his tentative romance with Arilyn in a mature and sweet manner and takes his eventual rejection with grace. Despite all that, he doesn’t feel like a Mary Sue; he may be an excellent person, but he’s not the right person to solve the elves’ problems. Jill, the enslaved dwarf whom Arilyn rescues at the start of the novel, is an example of the “comedy dwarf” trope that I usually can’t stand, but it’s much less irritating here than in the works of R.A. Salvatore. He’s not comic in a slapstick “funny when he hurts himself” way, but in a “people comically underestimate him and then get their kneecaps bent the wrong direction” way, which is much less tiresome to read. He’s still a one-note character, but the author didn’t give him enough screen time for that to become a problem.
The villains are despicable in an understandably human manner, a far cry from some of the two-dimensional “I’m evil just because” antagonists we’ve seen in previous Realms novels. Chief among them are the greedy, scheming Tethyrian councillor Hhune, who couldn’t care less about collateral damage so long as he can further his own wealth and prestige, and the vicious mercenary Bunlap, a racist thug with a vendetta against elves. They and their underlings have no hesitation about stooping to torture, rape, and murder — not because they’re simply monsters, but because their theme-supporting role is to represent the worst side of humanity. You could easily find similar corrupt politicians and Nazi skinheads in the pages of a modern newspaper, so they don’t come off as melodramatic.
“I have known many men like Bunlap. There is never a single, simple explanation for the evil they do.”
Unlike the happy ending of a fairy tale, victory over these villains, when it finally comes, is incomplete and comes at great cost. There’s no one bad guy you can punch to eliminate the problems of human greed and intolerance, after all, so the best the protagonists can do is to win a respite from conflict rather than solve human-elven relations forever.
Hasheth, one of Hhune’s underlings and an informant for the Harpers, is another character who’s morally ambiguous in an entertaining way. He’s an impressionable youth who’s torn between the pragmatic goodness embodied by the Harpers and the naked ambition embodied by his wily, grasping employer. Predictably, his shallow and self-centred nature leads him to abandon all of his pretenses of morality and fall to evil over the course of the novel. But he’s a would-be chessmaster who doesn’t realize that he’s a pawn — because he’s so transparently on his own side, everyone else is able to manipulate him by convincing him that what they want is in his self-interest. It’s a good arc that’s been a long time coming, ever since his first appearance in Realms of Valor, so it’s a shame that this is his last appearance in Realms fiction.
The titular “silver shadows” of the title, the lythari, serve pretty much the same story role as Tolkien’s ents. These reclusive, peace-loving shapeshifters spend most of the novel saying “This isn’t our fight and we can’t get involved,” but once they’re finally roused to anger it turns the tide of the conflict. The underlying theme is the same for both lythari and ents: if you stay neutral in the face of evil, you allow terrible things to happen. They’re not particularly critical to the story and could have been omitted entirely, but I like the air of mystery they impart. Having something which even the secluded, magical wild elves treat with awe and respect sells the idea that there’s much more to the forest than just a bunch of trees.
There are a few different themes and a lot to unpack here, but one way or another, all of it comes down to elves. Cunningham got her start and made her name by writing novels about elves of the Realms, and nearly all of her books involve elves and elven culture in some way, so it’s no surprise that elves and their conflicts with humans form the core of this book. Cunningham, a cat lover, once described her approach to elves as treating them like the humanoid equivalent of cats: graceful, arrogant, and dangerous. Whatever her inspiration, it seems to be working, because she’s the only author who’s done a good job of making elves feel like more than just humans with pointy ears.
Racism is the defining theme of Silver Shadows: the humans hate and fear elves and the elves hate and fear humans. Their cultures are fundamentally incompatible, and the elves can’t adapt quickly enough to respond to the changes that humans are imposing on them. This leads to a series of atrocities, which in turn creates humans who hate elves, like Bunlap, and elves who hate humans, like Hawkwing and Tamsin. Nobody understands the wild elves’ position; the moon elves of Evermeet want them to avoid conflict by abandoning their lands to the humans, and the mostly human Harpers want them to make concessions to the humans. It takes someone who’s capable of understanding all sides of the conflict to root out the evil and establish a fragile peace.
Furthermore, this novel can be viewed as a metaphor for the real-world relationship between Native Americans and the colonizing Europeans: a numerous and aggressive people are steadily displacing a less technologically inclined people for the resources on their lands, driving them to near the point of extinction. I think this theme hits surprisingly well. To see why, let’s hold it up against Douglas Niles’ Maztica trilogy. In that series, a bunch of white people wearing conquistador outfits head west across the sea and try to conquer a culture that’s exactly like the Aztecs in a land that’s exactly like Central America. There’s no way he could have made the parallel more obvious or on-the-nose, so it ends up being just a straightforward retelling of history with a few names changed.
To summarize my earlier reviews, there are three main reasons why that’s an awful way to tell this story. First, the deliberate replacement of fantasy with real-world history lacks imagination or creativity. Second, it makes your story look weak by comparison because real-world history is generally much richer and more compelling than a half-assed imitation of it. Third, Niles’ Dances with Wolves approach to cultural conflict, where one of the white colonizers adopts native ways and fights against his former people, is a tired rehash of the old White Saviour meets Noble Savages trope that lets the white audience off the hook for their culture’s responsibility for its actions. “Look at this one heroic white guy!”, it says. “See, they’re not all bad.” And then the audience gets to identify with the good guy and look down on the bad guys as “the other people,” ignoring the fact that if they were back in that time, 99% of the audience would have been part of “the other people.”
But Cunningham’s take on the same theme is far superior. For starters, it’s much more rooted in fantasy than in history. There are no overt historical connections, no moral bludgeoning, no sidelong winks or nudges to the audience saying “Hey, recognize this?” Her goal, first and foremost, is to tell a good story. The situation is similar — a struggle over resources is steadily diminishing an embattled indigenous culture — but the story doesn’t need to emphasize the parallels to get the theme across or make us sympathize with the elves’ plight. The wild elves are the absolute epitome of the “noble savage” trope, but in a fantasy context it’s much more believable and less problematic than it would be in a historical tale, and they’re still a messy and divided culture rather than a magical utopia. Best of all, the protagonist of Silver Shadows is a half-breed who’s not quite accepted by either world, which makes for a richer and less black-and-white story than the “white sympathizer” approach.
More generally, a good theme is first and foremost subtle. Whenever an author hits you over the head with an idea and shouts “This is the message!”, you lose faith in their ability and/or willingness to tell you a good story. But paradoxically, when an author weaves the message into the story so carefully that you hardly notice it, that message hits harder and sticks in your mind a lot longer. The characters feel like real people, not like mouthpieces or symbols, so you care correspondingly more what happens to them.
Self-identity is another running theme in all of Cunningham’s novels, and it’s particularly prominent here. As a half-elf, most elves treat Arilyn like a human and most humans treat her like an elf. But in addition to the external racial conflicts, she’s also internally struggling to reconcile her elven heritage and upbringing with her human nature and her romantic relationship with a human. It’s set up well throughout the book and then paid off in a satisfying manner at the end. I love that it’s both external and internal, with no easy answers — it’s not a matter of simply picking between her human side or her elven side, but to find a way to synthesize the two in her own head and figure out who she wants to be.
As is typical for Cunningham’s work, the overall quality of the writing is excellent. The dialogue feels natural and clips along at a good rate, the descriptions are vivid, the diction doesn’t feel affected, and the pace keeps things exciting without becoming exhausting. I noticed a small handful of iffy sentences that could have been tightened up, but none of them were bad enough to call out specifically. Coming on the heels of the last novel, it’s a relief to read a book where the writing doesn’t continually get in the way.
For my money, Silver Shadows is the first unambiguously good Realms novel we’ve seen in a long time. The characterization is on point, the plot is much tighter and less contrivance-driven than some of Cunningham’s previous plots, the themes are poignant and gripping, and the writing is a joy to read. I spent this review looking hard for things to complain about, but all I could find were nitpicks. What are the odds that I’ll give out another “A” grade before I run out of TSR Realms novels? Judging from the docket of upcoming books, the chances aren’t looking good.
 This story is set two years before the events of War in Tethyr, so the country is still an anarchic mess rather than a unified kingdom. This means that the author gets to pretend that War in Tethyr never existed, which I dearly wish I also could do.
 The country is named Tethyr; the Forest of Tethir is inside it. Yes, it’s confusing. From a linguistic and historical perspective I’m fine with it; from a reader’s perspective it’s annoying. Blame Ed Greenwood, I guess.