Of Sword and Shadow

Written by A. L. Sowards
Review by Martha Hoffman

In 1397, in the Greek city of Thebes, a nameless slave is employed by her master in a variety of schemes ranging from stealing purses to espionage. On one of those adventures, she encounters Gillen, a young Basque man after the same prize as she. When he shows up with a different name at a function where she is impersonating the daughter of a dignitary, it’s clear there’s a pattern. But are they on the same side?

Whatever the connection, she springs to Gillen’s aid when someone tries to kill him. That draws her further into the complex politics of Thebes, fought over by Catalan and Navarrese overlords, with Greek natives lost in the middle. In addition to massing armies, more delicate matters of family networks and marriage negotiations could change the balance of power in the city and region.

As the political intrigue heats up and brings her into contact with some of the highest-ranking officials of church and state, her hard life as a slave and the mysteries of her origin start to unravel. And as she and Gillen become closer, she grasps at freedom, only to have her chances pulled further away from her.

The first-person narrator deftly provides enough of the complex context to keep the reader informed without weighing down the narrative. One might still wonder, despite explanations, how a slave ends up not only literate but with in-depth knowledge of history and the political maneuvers going on around her. Or how a change of clothes is enough for her to pass as an aristocrat. Those quibbles aside, the only real misstep is a belabored misunderstanding the main character has concerning Gillen that seems manufactured to create tension. Otherwise, it’s a lively story set in a fascinating place and time, with appealing main characters.