Jack of Shadows (1971) is a science fantasy novel that pioneered many tropes that are well-known in the fantasy and role-playing genres today. When you see a shady thief, robed in dark hues, who is a master of the shadows, a master of cunning and manipulation, and perhaps also a master of dark magical arts, then you can safely assume that somewhere along the line of inspiration this book and its main character, Jack, played a part.
Running at 207 pages in the edition that I own, Jack of Shadows feels like a light and easy read. It is well paced and well written, and the plot is simple but action-packed and tense, with sometimes humorously edgy dialogue thrown in.
Following the main character of Jack — a devious and magical criminal enigma whose name and face is known, feared, hated, and even loved across the underworld —, the book is full of otherworldly effects and nervous confrontations. Jack has burned many bridges over the years, and everyone he crosses wants paid the debt he owes them. Right as the book opens, Jack is eyeing a new prize — the Hellflame, the winning trophy of the Hellgames in the Twilight Lands — a pursuit which lands him in the Dung Pits and starts him on his enchanted journey and eventual rise to arcane power.
In the world of Jack, one side of the planet (Nightside) is cast in permanent darkness, and it is where Jack lurks. Unlike the other residents, however, Jack relies on the light, because it is specifically in shadow rather than darkness itself where he harnesses his power. For example, he is able to eavesdrop on those who speak his name in the shadow. Lots of interesting characters and encounters come of this setting, each with their own unique twists and meanings in Jack’s adventure. Jack’s abilities also create some interesting situations, and also interesting solutions.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Even if you don’t read too many fantasy novels like myself, you should be able to immerse yourself in this book very easily. The setting and characters will feel familiar to you if you’re somewhat familiar with dark fantasy and role-playing, and there is a good amount of dialogue and action, so scenes move quickly and energetically. Jack is a sardonic and almost creepy fellow, so following him as the main protagonist is endlessly entertaining, which is no doubt the reason why he inspired the creation of so many other characters and popular role-playing archetypes.
Definitely a read I recommend before booting up a game of classic Thief.