When the story opens in Shadows of Ghosts, the southern provinces have recently seceded from the kingdom, due to their belief that centaurs aren’t quite human and should be kept as slaves. This has led to a civil way between the slave-holding, seceding south and the abolitionist north. In case you weren’t sure if this is referencing anything, the king of the northern provinces goes to the theater where he’s assassinated by a southern sympathizer, who is captured by being chased into a barn that’s then set on fire...
One of the really thoughtful and personalized rejections that Star-Crossed received included a disclaimer that no one really likes Civil War alternate histories. As a rule, I enjoy alternate histories, but reading a heavy-handed morality play in a thinly-veiled Civil War made me understand why they are disliked.
Anyway, there’s a prince hidden away in a backwater village, who becomes the new king when the old king gets shot at the theater. He joins up with his loyal best friend (the son of a Confederate soldier) and a centaur helper (who ran away from his owner when his wife and child were sold), and travels through the woods on their way to meet General MacGuffin in the wild western provinces, meeting members of different factions as they travel. And also eating cheese sandwiches… they eat a lot of cheese sandwiches in this book.
Each meeting with a secondary character along their path follows a similar formula. The party would say who they were (usually lying), the newcomer would tell them not to lie, the party spokesperson would repeat the answer, and then the new secondary character would give a monologue about how the war had affected his life. Here is a poor Southern who’s never owned centaurs, blaming the centaurs for starting all the trouble. Here is a Southern sympathizer who points out that the Northern economy is different so they were able to acquire wealth without centaur labour. And so forth. Instead of adding sympathy for all the people in the kingdom affected by the war, it was heavy-handed and unpleasant, and didn’t really do much to advance the hero’s journey.
The Bechdel Test examines media from a feminist perspective, asking if the media includes two female characters, if they both have names, and if they have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. Shadows of Ghosts fails hard at that. We meet only one woman, the wife of an abolitionist, in the entire novel, and she talks about housekeeping to the all-male protagonist party.
Some of the stilted dialogue led me down the wrong trail. When the party is hiding at the house of an abolitionist, the wife disappeared and then returns saying that she just had to take the bread out of the oven before it burned. It was such a clunky moment, especially when coupled with the awkward greeting (basically insisting that she wasn’t an abolitionist, didn’t know any abolitionists and had totally never met their contact, which seemed a pretty firm denial in a northern village, you know?) that I was 100% sure she’d just sent a message to pro-southern forces to come get their king.
Many, many interesting subplots are hinted at, and then dropped. There’s a ghost daughter and a ghost mother, and the young king frequently gets a bad feeling premonition, but none of these shadows or ghosts is really explored. Which is a shame, because these seemed a lot more interesting than learning how Real People™ had been affected by the war.