Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk is the conclusion of a trilogy which began with Shadow's Lure and Shadow's Son.
I'll admit, I had a hard time getting into this book. I just didn't care about the characters or the plot very much. The story is bifurcated without much crossover between the two halves. In the first book in the series, Caim and Josey meet and seem to fall for each other. In the second book, they go their own separate ways, with Josey leading her Empire and Caim heading North to find his mother. You might expect that they end up together again at the end of the third book, seeing as Josey is pregnant with Caim's child, but in fact, they don't.
Now usually, when a series' ending is unpredictable, I'm all for it. But the problem here is that it's hard to see why Caim's and Josey's stories belong in the same book, since they basically cross paths once in this volume, and she doesn't even tell him about the pregnancy. You know, there are a lot of multiple viewpoint books where characters drift back and forth between the storylines as they travel or whatever. But at least the halves (or thirds, or whatever) feel connected, because events on one side affect events on the other.
Now you might argue that the invasion of Northmen facing Josey's Empire is a result of the Shadow Lord's efforts. But the connection takes a back burner and is barely mentioned. There's just not enough to it, to bring things full circle. And so we're left reading two different books that cut back and forth but don't really have any bearing on each other.
I guess if Sprunk hadn't done it this way, we'd have been bored out of our minds. Many of Josey's early scenes were her with the army, sleeping late or reading dispatches or having pregnancy-related problems or feeding hungry villagers. Nothing much happened. Most of Caim's scenes, throughout the book, were of traveling with his companions in the cold. They got chased out of a lot of towns and Malig was always looking for sex. His companions wanted to know where they were going, and Caim would never tell them (except farther North) because he didn't really know. That's about the extent of it. There is something to be said for summarizing a long journey in a couple of pages, rather than having it take a whole book. Because it really just gets boring after awhile.
In fact, I think this might've been a much better series if it had been a duology. All three volumes were pretty short. So if Sprunk could've cut a lot of Josey's and Caim's boring stuff from this book, and merged the second and third books, I think it would've been a tighter story.
We also see some of Balaam's (he fights for the bad guys) and Kit's stories, and they both make decisions which seem spur-of-the-moment but which will have far-reaching impacts. Balaam's decision sort of comes out of nowhere; he decides he's "his own man" and goes against the Shadow Lord. He's experienced a couple of failures up to this point, and this about-face may be merely self-preservation. Kit decides to become human so she can be with Caim. Apparently all she needs to do, to accomplish this, is to walk into her grandmother's garden and get bitten by a snake. This is after she is shown a vision of her future as an old woman, with Caim an old man. She isn't particularly happy after this vision, but after awhile, she decides to go through with it. The lead-up to Kit's decision was better than the lead-up to Balaam's, but we've heretofore gone through two entire books where there wasn't even a hint of a romantic relationship between Caim and Kit, and now she's willing to give up immortality for him.
Of course Kit's transformation occurs at the least opportune time, right before the big confrontation, and now she can't help Caim by observing events without being seen, herself, and now he has to protect her (she saves him once, but gets captured easily more than once).
There's not much to the characters in this book. Brian is a good guy, though his father plots. Josey is the usual headstrong princess. Malig has already been spoken of. Users of shadow magic feed on blood. Though Caim resists. Caim is probably the most complex character in the whole series, and even he fails to stand out when placed among the plethora of assassins and thieves who have appeared in fantasy novels in the past couple of years. Though I probably shouldn't, I get his backstory mixed up with Malden's from David Chandler's Den of Thieves. The backgrounds are not at all similar, but Malden and Caim are just such stock characters that it's hard to get excited about them.
I've mentioned some of the names in the book: Josey (short for Josephine), Brian, Caim, Malig, Balaam. Here are a few others: Aemon, Dray, Hubert, Abraxus, Dorcas. This is a pretty bad case of the Aerith and Bob trope, maybe one of the worst I've seen since Terry Goodkind. "Brian" for Josey's new love interest? Really? Brian? (It doesn't help that there's a guy named Brian in my lab so whenever I picture the character, he looks like the Brian from my lab.) At least I don't have any preconceived notions of what someone named "Caim" or "Dray" should look like.
Anyway, what else? There were a lot of fights, and Sprunk is decent at describing these. Except they usually degenerate into the shadows helping Caim. One feature of the previous two books which is not seen in Shadow's Master, thankfully, is Caim getting his ass kicked by a shadow dude, I mean really beaten to a bloody pulp from which he should not easily be able to recover, and then coming back and finishing the guy in a later fight. I really thought this would happen between Caim and Balaam, and it didn't, and I'm glad for that.
On the other hand, there were a few battles and these weren't described well at all. Events which probably would have taken hours, took half a page. Very little description of the actual battles other than the positioning of archers and some magical explosions. Conveniently, most of Josey's command staff makes it out unscathed, even from a terrible defeat. I suppose part of the reason the battle descriptions aren't very good is that they come from Josey's perspective, and she is unschooled in such things, but I don't think the omissions were actually intentional. I think Sprunk needs to work on his technique a bit in this area.
Let's end by saying a few nice things. Dialogue was mostly well done, with short sentences that people might actually say. And when there were long paragraphs without dialogue, it was mostly describing action. Not a whole lot of boring introspection and exposition. So that was definitely appreciated. Also, Sprunk has managed to end this book in a little over 300 pages, and a series in only three short books. Probably all of Sprunk's books together have fewer pages than A Dance with Dragons. While I like long series, there's something to be said for knowing where you're going and being able to tie it all up.
Anyway, if you really like books about assassins, you may be interested in Sprunk's work. But if you are getting a little tired, and only want to pick the BEST books about assassins, I'd skip this one. (The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan starts off with an identical plot device to Sprunk's trilogy, but is a much more engaging read, and has a much stronger finish.)