“The Duchess of the Shallows” follows the adventures of a young woman living a deceptively simple life under a false identity who one day gets a message from a mysterious benefactor offering her the chance to join the secretive and powerful underground organisation known as ‘The Grey’. As a test of her abilities she is asked to steal a valuable antique dagger recently acquired by a wealthy noble, as an extra challenge she is commanded to do it during a party the noble is throwing to show off his newest acquisition.
As a fantasy novel set in a large city with a heist at the centre of the plot, the premise did remind me a bit of Scott Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora”. This does have some similar strengths. It has good characterisation; both Duchess and her friend and partner-in-crime Lysander are interesting and likeable characters, and there are several interesting minor characters. The world-building is also good, although city-building might be a better description since virtually the entire novel takes place in the city of Rodaas which is described in vivid detail. It’s mostly a fairly standard fantasy city, but there are a few interesting touches, particularly an intriguing backstory which described the city as having been mysteriously abandoned overnight by its original inhabitants. One small downside to the world-building is that although the exposition is clear and concise, at times it does feel like more time is spent on world-building than the main plot.
The heist itself is suitably tense and does feature a moral dilemma as Duchess has to balance achieving her goal with putting her friend in danger. On the downside, only occasionally does it feel like she is in genuine peril. Compared to “The Lies of Locke Lamora” the stakes don’t feel as high and the heist isn’t as complex, but I think this is a side-effect of Duchess being much less experienced and capable than Locke and his gang.
Although this would work well as a stand-alone story, it is obviously intended as the first book in a series and some of the most interesting aspects of the story are left unresolved – it is clear that Duchess is a pawn in a much larger game and there are hints that the fate of the entire city may be at stake. Many of the characters have their own agendas and while we do find out what some of them are during the book, some key characters do remain enigmatic. Duchess’ backstory also gets a lot of attention, during the book she unravels some of the reasons behind her childhood journey from a comfortable life among the nobility to having to pretend to be the child of a baker and this backstory does provide explanation for why she’s willing to take huge risks to move up in the world.
In summary, this an entertaining debut fantasy novel that has plenty of potential for interesting sequels.
Rating : 7.5 / 10