I grabbed this one at a used book store last year. I’d seen it around a little bit and knew it was apocalypse-ish themed but that was about it. I know I generally love that genre though, so I figured I’d grab it for when I was in the mood later. I started it about one or two weeks ago (it was a slower read for me – I’ll talk through why later in the review) and then all of a sudden coronavirus sent this country (and the world) into a tailspin that made this novel seem entirely too realistic. However, I was too far in to put it down and re-start later so, I powered through.
“But even if I never say it, it’s still real, because a thing does not have to be said to be real. It just has to be remembered.”
On a random afternoon at a market in India, a man loses his shadow. And what starts as a scientific phenomenon that no one can explain turns into a much scarier turn of events. The loss of a shadow precipitates a new power, a sort of magic, for that person. But it comes at a price: the loss of memories. And as this phenomenon spreads across the globe like a plague, a dystopian, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it situation arises. Years later, Ory and his wife Max, are managing to survive together at a run-down mountain resort, until the day Max’s shadow disappears…and then, she runs away to protect him. But Ory doesn’t want to give up on her, and sets out on a journey to find her. On the way, Ory faces roaming bandit groups, warring factions in the ruins of the nation’s capital and a terrifying cult who actually worship the “shadowless.” At the same time, Max finds a group of shadowless who are traveling to find someone named “the one who gathers,” who is rumored to be able to help the shadowless…and they race to make it to his stronghold in the south before they forget what they are doing/where they are going.
So, like I said, the beginning of this one was particularly difficult to read, under the present-day circumstances. My anxiety was real, as this book walked through day-by-day the world shutting down, borders closing, hoarding and rioting, governments falling to pieces. It felt very familiar. And I really did wonder if I should keep going. But then, about a third of the way in (ish) things kind of changed up, and I started to settle both into the story and into the more fantastical aspects that allowed to me to separate this plot from the current-day existence. Anyways, what I really liked about this novel was that the development of everything, from plot to characters to world-building to the “science” of shadow-loss, was just so thorough. I mean, the fact that it was based in a recognizable world (the southeastern states of the US) definitely helped with the world-building part, but past that, the way Shepherd created such an authentic atmosphere of lawlessness and chaos and fear, both of other people and of the threat of memory loss…it was just tangible on every page. So well written.
However, I do have to say that it was at the same time, a little too dragged out. There were a few points throughout the novel where the pacing stalled out for me a little bit. There ended up being a lot of players coming together by the end that, though all their presences made for a more sweeping and inclusive conclusion, in a way that I did like, caused the rest of the novel to get bogged down during the introductions and weaving-in. Plus, there were some convenient coincidences that felt too easy. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want to know about them all (and I liked the many perspectives/examples of reactions to the end of the world – a diverse look at the way people handle trauma and adversity)…I guess I just wanted to know about them faster. I also really loved the “science” beyond the magic production and memory loss that came from shadowlessness. It was a quite interesting and the details we got, while also slowing down the overall pacing at times, were intellectually stimulating in a way I enjoyed. There are definitely some holes in the way the two processes, magic-usage and memory loss, played against each other (in the same way that I feel like all time travel stories had holes, not that this book had any time travel in it, but just a similar feeling) – that you can vaguely feel, but can work through with a willing suspension of disbelief (which I totally had here).
As a side note, the entire thing with the reason for fighting over and collecting books, which I liked in theory and the way it was used in the end, was just too flimsy for me to believe – like they needed to be there by the end but the rumors and motivations that caused them to be a point of contention earlier on just didn’t seem believable. Honestly, that felt like the biggest “flop” of the novel, in my opinion.
In addition, I thought that the overall exploration, in a theoretical and philosophical sense, of memory and the nature of remembering and the aspects of memory and self that make a person that person, was spectacular. It was intricately examined and really did make me think deeply on it. Which I always appreciate, as a reader. And last, that ending! I thought I knew exactly what was coming, and to be honest, I was ready to be slightly disappointed. It was setting up to be a little too perfect and predictable for me, under the circumstances. And all signs as I read pointed to that ever more and more. And then, just when I thought that was it, there was a spectacular and totally unforeseen twist! I would never have guessed it and, though it was small in overall plot meaning, it was jaw-dropping and perfect in context. Plus, it left me with so many thoughts and questions (in a good way!) about what happened that we might never know about and, again (and the biggest thing coming out of this read for me, as mentioned) what actually makes a person a person… What is the exact combination of memories and physicality that make a person who they are? I’m left with some really cool metaphysical reflection to think through.
This was a unique and philosophically fascinating post-apocalyptic novel. It had lots of action and intrigue and mystery and mythology and “science” and relationship development. But there were also points where it lost me a little with travel sections that seemed to drag and/or explanations that felt just a smidge too far out of my grasp. Definitely a good read and a nice addition to the dystopian/scifi genre. If it’s a genre you love reading, I’d say to give this one a try. If not, and you are looking for just a single representative of this sub-genre to sample, I don’t know if this would be the one I’d suggest.