Shadow, Shadow

Shadow Shadow

My last few reviews have all been for fantasy novels so I think it’s time for a bit of variety. Shadow, Shadow was written by V.B. Marlowe and first published in 2015. It’s a horror story that follows four teenagers as they contemplate committing an unspeakable crime. The novel is the first part of The Shadow Pines Trilogy but at the time of writing no further instalments have been announced.

On her sixteenth birthday, Harley finds herself in receipt of a strange invitation – a hand delivered note inviting her to an exclusive event at a new speciality store. When she arrives, she finds that she is not the only one. Three other teenagers share her birthday – Teaghan, Brock and Gianna – and have also been promised a special birthday gift from the shop.

Ava-Kaya, The owner of the shop relates to them the sinister history of their home. Shadow Pines is so named because it is home to “shadow beings” and these creatures require regular sacrifices to ensure they remain happy. Ava-Kaya presents each of them with a wooden box which gives them the power to perform the sacrifice. If they place a single hair in the box and recite a short spell, the owner of the hair will vanish in the night, taken by the shadow beings. Whether or not they use the boxes are up to them. The only catch is that if one of them makes a trade, all of the others must also do so.

As the weeks pass, the weight of the choice falls heavily on each teenager. While all of them have people that they dislike, giving their tormentors to the shadows seems almost unthinkable. However, it is not long before their choices are made for them. When one of the teenagers finally snaps, the rest find themselves forced to make an impossible choice. If they do not make the trade, the shadows will come for a loved one instead.

I was immediately drawn to Shadow, Shadow by its blurb (and gorgeous cover art). I love stories that hinge on moral dilemmas and you really can’t get a dilemma more extreme than this. The plot shared some similarities with Richard Matheson’s fantastic short story Button Button (basis of the less fantastic movie, The Box) but added additional supernatural creepiness to the tale. In Button Button, the victim simply dies but in Shadow, Shadow they are spirited away by some unknown creatures and just never seen again. That’s it. We don’t know if they’re alive or dead, or what exactly the shadow beings do to them as the abductions always occur off page. The victims are just there one page and gone the next, and that is terrifying.

Putting such terrible power in the hands of troubled teenagers also leads to a fantastic social experiment. It seems inevitable that one of them will eventually breakdown. The story was never really about if, but when. As we learn more about the characters we see that each of them is being tormented by someone, ranging from bullies, to step-parents, to people who have wronged their families in the past. The early part of the story maintains tension fantastically well as the reader waits to see who will be driven to breaking point the fastest.

However, the story was let down by its structure. Shadow, Shadow was clearly written as part of a longer work rather than as a story in its own right as nothing is never explained. It had the feel of an episode of Welcome to Nightvale, yet somehow made far less sense than Nightvale does. The tale does not even come full circle. It opened on a scene where Brock was being arrested before flashing back nine months but the novel did not reach this point again by the climax. For me, this made it deeply unsatisfying as there was no real sense of closure.

The author seemed to be constantly raising questions, yet never answered any of them. We never truly discover what the shadow beings are, or what they want. We never find out where the shadow boxes came from. We never find out what the wider conspiracy is – with no one ever able to leave town and the mandatory vaccinations that students receive every few months. In particular, we never find out what Ava-Kaya’s involvement in the bigger picture really is. It is clear that she knows more than she is letting on and has some deeper involvement in the origins of the boxes yet we never find out one iota of information about her, which was very weak storytelling.

The story is also very dialogue heavy. Little of the action actually appears on the page – it’s largely just related back to the reader by the characters. While I felt that this was an interesting way to keep the disappearances mysterious, in other ways it was far less effective. Characters’ back-stories are dropped into conversation, Brock’s mission to have revenge against Ackerman is mentioned many times but never seen and Gianna’s secret is simply announced by another character. Even Nash, the nastiest character in the story by far, does not show his true colours until the final act. Before this it is implied that he’s abusive but we only really see him being a disrespectful jackass.

In terms of character, the story is a lot stronger. All four of the main characters are well rounded and are very relatable, each speaking with their own unique voice and showing varying strengths and weaknesses. The author does well to put us in their shoes, making their internal conflict seeming quite understandable. We would all like to think that we’d never trade someone to the shadows but when we see Harley being belittled by her stepmother and Teaghan being bullied by virtually everyone, it suddenly becomes clear why the box would hold so much appeal. We’ve all had times when we wished that our tormentors would simply disappear.

In particular, the “villain” of the story (whose identity I can’t reveal is it’s a major spoiler) is a fantastic character. I love their motivation and how the power of the box gradually corrupts them and I thought their eventual fate was perfect. They reminded me a lot of Death Note’s Yagami Light, although their reasoning was far more shallow which made them seem all the more terrifying.

My only real problem with the characters is that they never really show any real fear or concern for their situation. While they frequently exposit things like concern for the families of the vanished, I never really got a sense that they felt especially guilty, or frightened, or saddened by what happened. When the above mentioned villain goes off the deep end, they do not try to stop them. They simply try to politely reason with them while still remaining “good friends”. I’m not sure that I’d really want to be good friends with someone who is slowing killing off everyone around me. I think I’d probably do more to try and stop their macabre killing spree…

Anyhow, I don’t have much more to say about this one. Shadow, Shadow is an atmospheric novel which hinges on an interesting moral dilemma, but does suffer from some structural problems. Nothing is explained within this story, making it feel more like an extended prologue to the series than a novel in its own right. However, it’s an intriguing beginning and it left me very curious to see how the conspiracy will thicken in the next instalment.

Shadow, Shadow can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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