A Cavern of Black Ice


J. V. Jones


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

August 10, 2009

Cavern of Black Ice is the first book in the Sword of Shadows trilogy. I don't know why it is called Sword of Shadows trilogy, there is no mention in this first book of any special sword. I am giving A Cavern of Black Ice a three star rating, which isn't bad, but actually I am disappointed that it wasn't better. Somehow the reviews of this book led me to believe this was a fantastic novel, but I found it to be uneven. Some aspects of this novel were quite well done, and other parts were rather poor.

What's good? I really liked some of the characters. The two brother tribesmen, Raif and Drey, are likeable stalwart clansmen. Ash is terrific as the young girl tormented by too much magical power growing inside of her. Angus is great as the spy/frontiersman. And some of the bad guys are truly excellent in their dastardly roles: Penthero Iss and Sarga Veys are diabolical as evil sorcerors. Vaylo the Dog Lord, leader of the Bluddsmen clan is another fine villain.

Unfortunately, not all the characters are convincing. The evil swordsmen Mace Blackhail and Marafice the Knife are supposed to be fearsome leaders, but in fact they are blundering fools. How many times does Marafice get bested by Ash, four? Does he ever succeed at ANYTHING? Why doesn't Iss simply execute Marafic for incompetence? There has to be a point at which Marafice pays the price for screwing every task he is assigned. Mace Blackhail is also completely unconvincing as the conniving usurper. Is everyone in the Blackhail clan (including Raif and Drey) as dumb as a box of rocks? Blackhail's schemes are transparently wrong, his lies would crumple before the slightest rebuttal, yet no one in the entire clan challenges him?

What else is good about this book? Jones has depicted an original world. It is a grim and icy world, full of brutality and terror, and it is nicely drawn. This isn't a romance novel disguised as a fantasy story, the story here is harsh. The world is full of ice and snow. Jones seems to have done a lot of research about how people live in arctic terrain, because her characters seem fully adapted to their frigid environment. Jones has created a savage world that seems to have a real history, populated with believable citizens and landscapes. I especially liked the Hollow River.

A Cavern of Black Ice has (mostly) good characters and a well drawn world, what's not to like? The problem with this book is the plot. The story is riddled with coincidences and lucky events. An awful lot of very convenient things happen to keep the story moving forward. The following paragraphs describe some of these flaws, so if you intend to read the book, some of the story is revealed here, so stop reading now.


We are told that the clansmen fear and despise magic, that any clansmen who used magic would be branded a witch and outcast from the clan. Yet the clansmen each carry their own magical lore, an amulet which guides them and gives them aid. When the clans attack, they are aided by sorcery - yet this magical aid doesn't seem to upset the wielders - though I wish someone would have explained why is it helpful to have broadswords that draw no blood when they strike? Wouldn't the opposite sorcery be more useful - a broadsword that drew extra blood?

When Angus Lok turns east to visit his family, how does Penthero Iss know that is the reason for his change of direction? Angus Lok is trying to evade the pursuit of the sept, wouldn't you expect him to take off in some random directions? Yet Angus oddly decides that this is good time to visit the farm, and somehow Iss knows that because he has changed direction, his reason must be to visit his home.

Hardest to believe is the fortuitous timing of Ash's and Angus' first encounter at the Vaingate. What a coincidence that both happen to at that place at the same critical time. And despite that fact that neither has ever met, Angus immediately recognizes the dirty beggar girl as a Reach, even though a Reach is born only once every 1000 years - so how does Angus figure out that Ash is a Reach and thus she is so important?

How does Dry Bannock know it is Raif and Ash that he is ambushing when out on patrol? Rather than killing the party, he knows immediately who everyone is, and so captures them instead. How does he know?

How does Drey know that Raif is captured? How does he know which prison cell he is in? Why doesn't anyone bother to think about freeing Angus from his prison cell? Couldn't Drey have thought of a better escape plan for Raif? Drey's party uses sorcery to help storm the prison, but earlier we learned that clansmen shun all sorcery!

Members of all the clans are shocked when they hear of the massacre of the Bludd women and children in the ambush, and Raif faces consequences for his involvement. But why isn't there any backlash against Mace Blackhail, who organized the ambush, and ordered all the deaths? Mace is still able to make treaties with other clans with impunity, his standing within the clan isn't diminished in the slightest despite the fact that the deaths of the women and children were under his orders. Why didn't Mace make the women and children hostages? In none of the other violent incidents in the book does anyone ever seem to pause before slaying women and children.

What are the odds that a pack of hunting dogs, searching over a vast tundra, would find a slain raven (with an important message tied to its leg) buried under several feet of snow?

Effie conviently overhears some very useful converstations by Mace.

How did a book with such a flawed plot get to be voted one of the best books of 1999? This book is good enough that I might read the next one in the trilogy, but there must have been some better books written in 1999.