• Book Review: 'Shadow of the Last Men' by J.M. Salyards

    Shadow of the Last Men, Book 1 of The Next Man Saga by J.M. Salyards, is a science fantasy novel that follows a trio of gifted heroes in their quest to save the people from the the tyranny of a dystopian city, and save its people. The setting is dark and gritty, yet vivacious as the battle of wills brimming with stylish action and invention unfolds.

    In the poverty-stricken Outlands, its people had been poisoned by the corruption of the Last Men of Order, a chauvinistic and power-hungry organization from the wealthy society of the Third City. With their nefarious schemes, they would do anything to crush the wills of people; Salyards depicts them grimly: They have been "reduced to commercial product". But not every Outlander has given up. Harrow, a young and disciplined hero whose uncanny spirit is shaped by his father's teachings, rises to fight for justice. His heroism is perceptible from the beginning: He saves a little girl from demons.

    Two unique characters join him: Alouine, a princess whose father has died as a cog of the Order; and Quantain, a mystic who reminds me of Vivi, the faceless mage from Final Fantasy IX.
    Salyards develops these characters well early on as we learn the motivations of their vengeance and the coming-of-age wisdom from their mentors. They're like spiritual activists who don't just fight with brute force, but also with willpower that's similar to the spiritual "force" in Star Wars.

    The contrast between the abstract and concrete show the extent of Salyards's imagination. The patchwork of fantasy and science fiction elements, creates dazzling scenes of metaphysical energy and technology that Salyards vigorously extrapolate. One moment Salyards is describing the spiritual nature of the wayfarer, and the next moment he writes about "Incarnation Matrix" and quantum device. They're mind-bending yet vivid, while some are overrun with excess adjectives that tell more than show.

    The most intriguing creation is the Software: Integrated Maneuvering and Orientation Node, or simply SIMON, which is an Artificial Intelligence technology designed by Harrow to enhance his analytical capabilities. The power of the computer is integrated with his mind, making him not just a fierce combatant, but also a skilled tactician. It's fascinating to see Harrow use this ability to develop an effective strategy for his team. Another interesting invention is the apotheosis machine, whose function is to preserve souls.

    Alouine's subplot with her friend Thara is emotionally-engaging, which probably makes her character the "most human" in the team. The education and spiritual guidance of the mentor figures
    Harrow's father and Quantain's mother preach obvious truths such as the evil of "strong egos". These words of wisdom may enlighten some young readers, but their sententious tones often derail the story's focus from its forte: the violent struggle against corruption. They also have to fight against a cunning enemy, a Last Man named Carver. Knowing that Harrow is a threat to the Order, he is determined in assassinating him. There's also an epic battle against the Death Head soldiers. Salyards is best in writing these intense scenes. Like the slow-motion moves in the movie Matrix, the action is fast, but they don't feel rushed. Salyards takes the time to describe these battles in detail, letting you savor the experience.

    Shadow of the Last Men has set the stage with a cast of likeable characters and a world that fuses psycho-spiritual and technological elements. Its final chapters may be as dark as the early ones, but as far as the story goes, it seems the future for The Next Man Saga is bright.

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