A Tunnel in the Sky

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Shadow of the Leviathan Series
by Robert Jackson Bennett

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted February 12, 2024

Book 1: The Tainted Cup

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I debated whether to use the first book's title in the URL, instead of the collective name for the series, Shadow of the Leviathan. I chose the latter, mainly because it took 90% of the book for me to understand the significance of the tainted cup, whereas I knew about the leviathan(s) almost from the beginning. They should recur in the other books, but not the cup. It also made sense because I am sure to read the rest of the series, and when I do I will add comments about them to this page. This could be taking place on another planet, but I suppose it should be considered a secondary world fantasy. I gathered the Empire of Khanum had been established centuries before, on land previously occupied by various peoples, and previously ravaged by leviathans (alternately called titans). They are an amphibious species that periodically came onto the land, although the reasons for that were not explained, but they occurred during the 'wet' seasons. A series of earthen walls had been constructed to defend the land against leviathan incursions. A map shows four different walls in a semi-circular pattern, with the heart of the Empire within the inner circle. These lands also are home to many invasive plant and animal species which must be guarded against, but they also provide the means of concocting defenses against them, produced by the Apothetikals.

Other divisions within the Empire include Legion (military), Iudex (judicial and investigative), Engineering, Treasury, etc. There is of course a landed gentry, who control much of the business and agricultural endeavors. This has been described as a Holmesian pastiche, which is correct in a way, with the first person narrative from an apprentice to the main investigator, Iudex Immunis Anagosa Dolabra, who has been based in the Daretana Canton for the past four or five months. Her apprentice is Signum Dinios Kol, who is also an 'engraver.' That word means something different than you might expect. Many people have been enhanced or altered for specific purposes, including for strength and endurance in the military. Dinios Kol's enhancements allow him to remember everything he sees and hears, 'engraving' the impressions on his mind so he can recount them accurately later. He is limited by a disability, which he thinks he has been able to hide, even from Dolabra, although he should have known that was impossible. In addition to the map there is also a chart showing the heirarchy of governmental positions, the Chain of Command. The highest rank below the Emperor is Conzulate. An Immunis is four ranks below a Conzulate, with a Signum two rungs below that. Dolabra is the Holmes character here, but also different from Sherlock, mainly because she stays in her home, sending Kol out to observe, and she also wears a blindfold most of the time. She says it is to block out unnecessary stimuli, allowing her to concentrate on her other senses. She can even 'read' text simply by finger touch, and I don't mean through Braille. Instead of limiting her, blocking exessive stimuli helps her do the most important thing; think.

The story starts with Kol investigating the death of a high-ranking official, a Commander of the Engineers, who had been staying in a house owned by one of the richest of the gentry. One of the invasive plant species referred to above is dappleglass. If the spores were inhaled they could sprout within the body, then burst out in a devastating bloom. How and when was the victim exposed, and why was no one else in the household affected? Kol and Dolabra track the victim's movements prior to his death to determine if it was accidental, or should be considered a murder. Dolabra realizes she must travel for more information, while still wearing the blindfold most of the time. They go to the Talagray Canton, which is very near the outermost Sea Wall. Other deaths through dappleglass are discovered, ten more Engineers. Are they related to the first death? What about another death revealed later, a member of the family related to the first death? A decade or so before, dappleglass had been the cause of an entire canton being destroyed, forever quarantined. The suspicion is that someone who had escaped that canton was using dappleglass as a means of revenge against those who had been unable, or unwilling, to fight the dappleglass invasion and save the canton. But who, and how had they been able to move about with samples of dappleglass, and use them to kill without being detected? How had they found out who they should target?

So, a murder mystery set within a complicated society, with the usual red herrings (at least from Kol's perspective), with the main investigator withholding information until the very end. The later chapters go a bit too far into the typical "gather all the suspects together and recount the evidence," with the preceding clues being mostly glossed over and vague until then. The one about the cup should have been more obvious, but not to Kol at the time, or to me. Kol is a very observant person, dedicated to helping Dolabra solve the case, while also trying to keep his secret. She had known everything before they even met, in fact part of his problem helped her decide to request him as an apprentice. He proved brave and resourceful on numerous occasions, exhibiting skills he hadn't realized he possessed, and without being enhanced or altered for those skills. He passes his apprenticeship, becomes a full Assistant Investigator, and I assume he will remain in Dolabra's service. But they won't be going back to Daretana. Dolabra has more important mysteries to pursue, which will probably take them within the First Ring Walls. I will want to continue following the clues with them, and hope to be more observant of them next time. Highly recommended.


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Robert Jackson Bennett

February 6, 2024

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