[Sometimes you can't adequately critique a book without spoilers. This is one of those times.]
Patricia Briggs is turning into one of fantasy's top fan-favorite authors. But her seventh book still shows that she has yet to iron out many of the problems that plagued her writing way back in Steal the Dragon. While her characters are developed with great care and sensitivity (though they can be pretty uninteresting despite this), they are not always given convincing motivations for the things they do. And Briggs' plotting is sloppy, riddled with logic flaws and implausibilities. Briggs will set an entire narrative in motion based upon the thinnest of ideas, then fail to flesh it out believably. Raven's Shadow has a number of effective scenes that, taken in isolation, show that she understands good drama when she needs to. But overall, it's a bland and unchallenging little adventure that offers some superficial entertainment provided you don't actually think about it — at which point it all comes crashing down like the "evidence" for Iraq's WMD's. Can you blame me for wanting better?
The backstory involves a group of wizards who became so thoroughly corrupted by the magic they wielded that they inadvertently loosed upon the world a powerful evil called the Stalker. So terrible was this being that only the sacrifice of their own glorious city of Colossae could contain and imprison it. Then the wizards created the Orders, five special classes of magicians, who would protect humanity in subsequent generations as time caused the magical prison holding the Stalker to weaken. (Why not just create a stronger prison?) These Ordered magicians became the Gypsy-like Travelers, roaming the land in clans and discharging their duties to protect a human (or solsenti) population increasingly suspicious of and prejudiced against them.
Tier is a human warrior heading home to his rural hamlet of Redern after many years fighting in brutal civil wars. On the way, he rescues a Traveler girl from a mob that has already burned her brother. The girl, Seraph (not too subtle with the religious metaphors, is our Pat), belongs to the Raven Order. She informs Tier that although he is human, he is himself Ordered, belonging to the Owl or Bard class, so he must have some Traveler blood in his past. Taking Seraph home to Redern, Tier faces the stern disapproval of his family. He doesn't want to work the family bakery or marry some nice local girl, and when Seraph nearly magically blows up the bakery when Tier's sister insults her, Tier saves Seraph's skin by announcing that they are already married and plan to move onto a hardscrabble farm outside of town. The story then propels us forward twenty years, where we see Tier and Seraph have built a solid family.
Though the Orders seem to be dying out, Tier and Seraph's three children are all Ordered, and their oldest son, Jes, belongs to the rarest of Orders, the Eagle or Guardian. Jes shape-shifts into various wild animals and roams the forest at night. As a result, Tier and Seraph's family has come to the attention of the Path of the Five, a secret society of human wizards who worship the Orders as gods and who seek to steal Ordered magic from Travelers (which is apparently much better than solsenti magic). They do this by kidnapping Travelers, performing arcane rites upon them for a year and a day, and then imprisoning the Order in objects like rings and jewelry. The Path kidnaps Tier, prompting Seraph and her two sons to undertake a daring, death-defying rescue and...
Uh, wait a minute. In fact, there's nothing daring or death-defying about the rescue. Seraph and her boys just walk right into Tier's cell. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's just catalog the problems with this story one by one.
First, there's the whole marriage between Tier and Seraph. Briggs has never been very good at putting her characters into stable, sensibly founded romantic attachments, to say the least. Tier married Seraph to get out of family ties, and Seraph consented to the match because she just didn't have anywhere else to go. It's laudable for Briggs to eschew romantic clichés and mushy bathos. But if a couple really isn't held together by anything even after 20 years, then why expect me to feel any anxiety at all when they are torn asunder? What is my motivation for wanting to see the starcrossed lovers reunited, when they're neither starcrossed nor lovers? I mean, sometimes the romantic stuff works, you know? I suppose Briggs feels she's giving us something of a payoff near the end, when Tier and Seraph unsurprisingly confess the deep love they've felt for one another all this time but were too self-conscious to reveal. What, for 20 years? You idjits.
The Path must be the least threatening, least scary and dumbest secret society of arch-villains in all fantasy. They're basically a group of bored noblemen and rich kids whose leaders are solsenti wizards who've fallen under the influence of the Stalker and become "shadowed." But they do things that simply make no sense, and they aren't terribly difficult to thwart. Why on earth they kidnapped Tier, when he's not only not a Traveler but his magic is centered on musical skill, is singularly ill-explained. Seraph or any of the kids would seem to be stronger, preferable targets. (In fact, there's one scene in which Seraph meets another clan of Travelers and they briefly bind Jes using some kind of magic collar. Why Briggs didn't have the Path kidnap Jes and do that to him I'll never understand. Seems like it would've made for a stronger and more suspenseful story.)
Once they have Tier, their leader Telleridge uses solsenti magic to bind him, preventing him from escaping or harming any of them directly. But this apparently doesn't stop Tier from winning the confidence and friendship of the youngest Path members (whom he's expected to mingle with and entertain), a group of acolytes called the Passerines, and use his military experience to transform their dueling skills into actual swordcraft, effectively turning them into his private army. D'oh!
Look, villains are scary when they do villainous things, when they pose a tangible threat, not when they're Keystone Kop nitwits. If I'm an arch-villain who belongs to a group of evil wizards, and I want to kidnap someone in order to strengthen myself by stealing his magic powers, what do I do? Well, I suppose I could threaten to kill one or two members of his family, to force him to comply. I'd certainly make sure I kept him locked up safe and tight in my deepest, most secure dungeon, with a rotating shift of armed guards on duty 24/7. I mean, that'd cover the common-sense basics of villainy for starters, I would think. What I probably wouldn't want to do would be to allow him access to my youngest and most restless followers, so that he could turn them against me en masse. And I'd be damn sure not to leave him in an unlocked, unsecured cell that his super-powerful mage of a wife (who happens to have an army at her back by the time she gets to town) could just walk right into.
That storytelling flaws like these get past not only Ace's editors but thousands of fans who eagerly snap up Briggs' books just bowls me over. But then, if the genre had ever held its practitioners to high literary standards in the past, then such derivative and self-indulgent superstars like Brooks and Jordan wouldn't have careers.
To be fair, there are some well-done sections of the book where Briggs shows her quality. A subplot involving the wastrel emperor Phoran and his decision to assert himself and reign rather than be a figurehead is well done. It dovetails nicely with the main plot, and Phoran gets the book's best scene. Such scenes prove Patricia Briggs could be a really good fantasy writer if she just took more care and learned to plot her stories more convincingly. That she's allowed to get away with not doing so for so long is really a disservice, both to her and to the readers who think she's so much better than she is.