The Conquerer's Shadow is a novel by one Ari Marmell, who's otherwise better known as a writer of roleplaying game supplements. This is, however, apparently his fourth novel, three prior ones written in shared world environments: i.e., they're game fiction. Followers of my blog (if there were any) would know that I don't necessarily hold that against him.
The Conquerer's Shadow is a novel with an interesting premise. The protagonist of the novel is Corvis Rebaine, a former Dark Lord of an almost exaggerated Sauron-like aspect, except human. He's one of those who (also like Sauron) doesn't think he's necessarily evil; he's just using evil methods to bring about a greater good; the inefficient, greedy Guilds who are stifling the potential of his kingdom of Imphallion, who stiffed him as a young mercenary, and who are otherwise painted as very unflattering, are his real targets; he wants to set up a powerful, vibrant kingdom that betters the lives of those who live in it. Even if he has to kill most of the people of said kingdom to get to that point. Anyway... the novel starts off with him unsuccessful in his search for the spell-book of the greatest wizard who ever lived, which was the means to the end. Without having found the book, he's in a strategically untenable position. So, he grabs a young noblewoman as a hostage and skips town, leaving his army to disperse and disappear.
A few pages and several years later, he's settled down, living in hiding, married to his hostage (apparently quite happily) with two little kids and a cottage in the country. When another Dark Lord wannabe comes a-calling, clearly following in his exact same footsteps, he needs to take up his old armor and demon-forged ax and answer the call of duty. The theme of the novel, then, is a prior dark lord, now repentant and a little over-the-hill, having to turn to his old methods to now save his family. But the call of power is undeniable, and he has to decide who he really is: the conquering dark lord, or the quieter family man who doesn't care about what's going on in amongst the movers and shakers of his modest little kingdom?
Unfortunately, there's a strong clash between theme and tone in this novel, and the theme suffers considerably because of it. As you might expect, the Dark Lord's allies, as he starts to gather them, are supposed to be truly terrible. However... they don't come across as such. Even the soul-eating demon Khanda doesn't come across as truly evil so much as he? it? comes across as annoyingly Katherine Hepburn to Corvis's Spencer Tracy. The constant stream of juvenile insults isn't really funny enough to elevate the novel to a comedy or parody work, so instead it just dilutes and weakens the theme of the novel.
In addition, the voices of the various allies aren't very different from each other. Khanda only takes over as the insulting Katherine Hepburn when Marmell has grown tired of Davro, a character who featured much more prominently in the first part of the novel, but who inexplicably seemed to almost disappear after Khanda came along and took all his lines. In addition, the book occasionally slips into other points of view, and we see the new upstart Dark Lord Audriss has, unfortunately, the exact same relationship with his demon ally and his vampire warlord.
The plot's a competent one, the characters aren't half bad, but Marmell never really manages to bring a sense of urgency to his novel somehow. I've been thinking, since I finished it last night, why it is that I felt that, because he obviously tried to do so, and on paper it should have worked. I think it's the tone. It's too light-hearted. Everybody kinda runs around with non-stop wry sarcastic remarks ready to spit out. They're all too easy-going to really make the theme and action work quite right, and the novel never gets as dark as the subject matter should have been. Even when we see people killed, tortured, have their souls eaten, burned alive, or other "dark" things, I just don't feel it.
Again; the tone clashes with the theme. Both end up getting diluted. Now, maybe its just because I've read a lot of him recently, but Jim Butcher manages to nicely incorporate horror and humor without making one clash or undercut the other. I think maybe its because his truly horrible characters are never the humorous ones. Harry Dresden is, himself, fairly humorous, but he's the protagonist as well as the narrator. A few other sidekick characters get some good lines in: Bob the skull, Karin Murphy, Thomas, Carlos, etc. But none of them are horrible. They're all friendly sidekicks. Maybe that's why it works, or at least part of the answer?