Angela R. Wade, Cloak of Obscurity (self-published, 2002)

One of the major perks of reviewing for Green Man Review is free books, not all of which come through GMR. I recently told an independent bookstore owner in my hometown that I reviewed books and was promptly handed a stack of advance copies. When permission to review them for both GMR and the bookstore came through, Cloak of Obscurity was the thinnest of the stack, so naturally lazy me picked that one up first.

"Not a bad cover," was my first thought. Not slick — the cover is a thick white paper and the drawing is rough line art of several people standing in various poses around the bier of a dead woman — but it's appealing, an honest attempt to convey what lies inside. The artist, Jennifer Cunningham, has talent and I believe her work will improve even more with practice.

Opening the cover, I found a flier for the book tucked inside. "A murder mystery in an original fantasy setting," the flier read. "Read the first chapter on-line at www.apwade.com." Underneath that was a "red flag" for me — "Site is new — Please be patient. Some pages take two tries to load." Hoping I wasn't going to see what I suspected was coming, I turned the page, glanced over the dedication ("to the memory of my beloved daughter...") and looked at the title page. There it was: a bold declaration that this was a self-published book, by a local author, printed out at a shop down the street from where I live.

"Oh, no," I thought. "I knew I'd get one of these sooner or later. This is going to suck."

I have never been so happy to be wrong.

Cloak of Obscurity, written in a chatty first person narrative style, reminds me of some of Rosemary Edghills' writing, specifically her "Pendragon" detective stories. The main character of Obscurity, Edward Red Mage, is a mage-detective who lives, by choice, in poverty — ostensibly so that he can serve those who need his help the most. He's got an number of endearing flaws that bring the character to life: he drinks too much, he eats too much, and he has a terribly low self-esteem — the real reason he keeps undercharging for his services. He makes awful mistakes out of the best of intentions. He's got a tremendous blind spot, rooted firmly in that same low self-esteem — but I won't spoil the book by telling you what it is.

The plot is fairly simple — a woman (Alysoun) has died, and the suspicion of murder falls on an innocent boy. Edward is dragged (not unwillingly) into representing the boy, and the usual dance of trying to get information from witnesses that may not all be telling the entire truth begins. The strength of this book isn't so much in the plot, although that's certainly entertaining and well-drawn, with lots of complicated twists, but in the carefully thought out culture and characters. Wade pulls off the difficult task of having the audience see things the main character misses, something I've seen famous authors botch in first-person narratives.

Edward, a true detective, sees enough about the people around them to bring them to life as well. His landlord, for instance, although only tangentially involved in the main plot, acts as a strong support prop for his wavering belief in himself and is a remarkable woman herself:

Sadie Brewer was the undisputed mistress of the Snake and Egg. Nominally, the place belonged to her husband Nat, but as he spent almost all his time in the adjoining brewery, working on creating new and stronger varieties of beer, Sadie reigned supreme . . . She did not approve of thinness — she associated it with sickness and poverty . . . she tended to employ starving orphans and beggars . . . not surprisingly, her regular staff were all uncommonly fat. I myself had been quite thin when I had moved into the tavern. . . .

There are conflicts of belief and opinion, such as the one between men and elves:

'Do you know how we elves talk about the coming of men?'

I wouldn't have missed hearing this for the world. 'No. . .'

'Our elders teach us that the men came and helped us fight off the creatures of evil. . . then, once all the monsters were killed, the men decided they wanted to stay in our land . . . men have ruled the lands ever since.' . . . I was speechless. . . I had just never thought to look at it that way before.

Edward Red Mage comes out in the end as one of the most "alive" characters that I've read lately. The author, only half-kidding, claims Edward is always with her these days, an invisible presence stumbling along beside her and prompting her with tales to fill the next book.

I wasn't able to find any major characters that were notably "flat" or entirely predictable. The surprises were, to me, largely unexpected, and the ending wraps things up nicely and leaves threads for later books to grow on. Like the cover art, there's a certain indefinable "roughness" to the book — mostly scattered spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes that would be fixed by a publisher before the book went to press — but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

At under two hundred pages, this book "weighs in" as a relatively quick and easy read, lightened with plenty of wry humor along the way. I'm glad I had the chance to read it, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Angela Wade's work.

As a side note: when I finished reading and reviewing this book, I decided to get in touch with the author. When I walked into my monthly writing group meeting, I was still musing over what to say in the email. A few minutes later, my jaw bounced on the floor when a woman wearing a t- shirt with the Cloak of Obscurity cover walked in and asked if the group membership was still open! It was Angela Wade. After sputtering incoherently for a moment, I managed to explain why I was staring at her before she bolted, and we had a great meeting that night! Talk about synchronicity.

[Leona Wisoker]