Review: Shadows in the Water, Kory M. Shrum

Shadows in the Water, the first installment of a new fantasy crime series by Kory M.Shrum, debuted earlier this week – and I’ve been anxiously waiting to tell you about it. Full disclosure: the author is a friend, but I wasn’t paid to write this review – in fact, having devoured Kory’s earlier fantasy crime series, I volunteered to review this one because I was excited to get an early look at what she’s done now. Hey, every job has its perks.51xiapkcuql-_sy346_

Reviewers elsewhere have recommended Shadows in the Water for fans of Dean Koontz’s novels, and I don’t disagree. Both authors situate unusual people and otherworldly situations into mundane life as if they belong there, pushing you to accept the unacceptable – and, though the novel isn’t without its problems, it is this sense of strangeness that will ultimately keep you compulsively turning pages.

If you’re familiar with the author’s first series, Dying for a Living, then the set-up here might look a little familiar at the outset: strangely gifted girl, older male authority-figure-as-surrogate-father, simple problems that coalesce into a spider web of conspiracy. That, however, is where the similarities end. Louie Thorne is not Jesse Sullivan, and the world Louie moves in is darker. Often literally – Lou’s ability to slip from one place to another via shadows means that we see her most often after nightfall. This makes for an interesting sense of place – the reader ends up just as familiar with the insides of closets and the spaces behind furniture as with the streets of New Orleans, Florence, or Houston, to which the novel’s action also takes us. Often, descriptions of a shift in scene read like chiaroscuro paintings: the juxtaposition of light and shadow give the limbo realm through which Lou travels a three-dimensional quality – as if the dark were a hall with many rooms, instead just a medium through which Lou passes.

That dark, of course, lives in Lou as firmly as she lives in it. Her bloody revenge narrative forms one of the plot’s main arcs. For eight years, Lou has been seeking out and disposing of the men responsible for the murder of her father, a DEA agent and the centre of Lou’s world. Lou’s mother, Courtney, was also murdered, but Lou’s relationship to her mother was not one that left her mourning Courtney’s absence. Lou’s father, Jack, despite being dead, is perpetually present – in Lou’s constant flashbacks of memory, in her motivations, and even in her relationship to the few people around her: her father’s sister, Lucy, and his former mentor, Robert King. It becomes apparent that Jack Thorne was a lot of things to a lot of people – and they all use his memory like a tool, shaping it into what fits their needs best.

It is this sort of subtly-demonstrated psychology that makes Shrum’s characters so fascinating. King and Lucy, former lovers pushed apart by their connection to Jack, mirror each other in their guilt over Jack’s death: King self-destructs with greasy food and alcohol, while Lucy embraces the Buddhist concept of self-denial with a fervor that at times seems more focused on punishment than enlightenment. Both see Lou as an opportunity to make things right, their motivations for reaching out to her at once selfless and self-serving.

If everything ultimately revolves around Jack, then Courtney is largely an irrelevance – and this informs one of the novel’s few mis-steps. The novel’s prologue is from Courtney’s perspective – a strange choice when she never appears again and is immaterial to the plot. The prologue, in addition to setting up the action and introducing the idea of Lou’s ability, also serves as an info dump – we learn rapidly and inelegantly about Courtney and Jack’s troubled marriage, about how Lou was an unexpected – and largely unwanted – pregnancy, and about Courtney’s selfish resentment of the attention her daughter’s fear of water and darkness require. There is subtlety here; this is where we first see Lou’s ability, but it happens off-stage; this is where we first encounter La Loon, but it is neither described nor named, existing only in Lou’s speechless terror and the bite marks on her arm. But aside from those moments, the tendency is overwhelmingly to tell rather than show. It’s a disappointing beginning – and misleading as well, since showing you things sideways is something Shrum excels at through the rest of the book. Courtney later appears in reflections of other people – Lucy and King – when observing Lou, and the reader begins to understand just how like her mother Lou really is.

Lou herself seems frighteningly competent when we encounter her first as an adult – a facade that soon begins to crack. After years of killing and living in shadows, Lou is competent – and strong, and efficient, and flatly emotionless in a way that borders on sociopathic – but she is more vulnerable than most people get to see, and certainly more than she will admit to herself. Lou, who shares her slipping ability with Lucy, has far more power than her aunt, but that power is not always under her control. She can go places Lucy can’t – like the mysterious purple-skied La Loon, a world of nightmare beasts and shadowed waters – but sometimes the darkness pulls her. Lou can use her internal compass to find a person or a place, but every so often the compass tugs her to places she doesn’t choose – and though there are tantalizing clues bout how this works and why, this is one secret the narrative keeps both from Lou and from the reader. Even after the last page, we have as much to learn about Lou’s ability and where it will take her as she does.

Tied up in that somehow is Paolo Konstantine, the illegitimate son of Martinelli, the man responsible for Jack’s death. As the last living link to Martinelli, he becomes Lou’s focus – but he is just obsessed with her. In his reluctant assumption of power and his exhaustive search for the mysterious girl who visited him like an angel when he was a child, Konstantine unfolds from a fairly standard mob boss to a complex character with agendas and motivations of his own. He and Lou are pulled toward each other like magnets.

King’s own story arc, the third strand in the narrative braid, is perhaps the most predictable by comparison. While King himself is multi-faceted, his own story of betrayal treads familiar cop drama lines. This is saved by the ways in which his story begins to be looped in with Lou’s, and by the presence of Mel and Piper – two characters who mean very little to the overall plot, but nevertheless feel necessary, and serve to further flesh out King as more than just someone connected to Jack Thorne.

There are rough moments – the aforementioned prologue, the way Lucy’s scenes tend a bit towards the melodramatic, and the fact that Konstantine, for all his intriguing aspects, sometimes does fall back onto mobster cliché – but overall, Shadows in the Water is a solid and compelling first foray into what promises to be a dynamic series. The crime and fantasy elements blend seemlessly – the presence of La Loon (is it another dimension? Another planet? A literal nightmare? Kory, I wanna know!) adds an unexpected sci-fi spice. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

If you like Shadows in the Water – well, stop here first and let me know what you thought! But after that, here a few other series you might enjoy:

The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher – The other wizard named Harry – and this one solves crimes in Chicago. Urban fantasy at its very best.

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Laurel K. Hamilton – Vampires and werewolves and witches, oh my!

Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz – Fry cook, boyfriend, average guy – hero? Something evil has come to the desert, and Odd is the only one who can see it – can he stop it too?

Dying for a Living, Kory M. Shrum – Jesse Sullivan is a death replacement agent – if it’s your time to go, she can make sure it’s hers instead. But can she solve her own murder?

 

Review – The Bear and the Nighingale, Katherine Arden

Recently, I had the opportunity to read an early copy of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightgale, released on 12 January in the UK. I chose it, after reading a synopsis, to replace the Uprooted-shaped hole in my reading life after ploughing through that book twice (!!) when it debuted in paperback last summer, and, despite a rough beginning that left me wondering when synopsis would end and plot would start, I was not disappointed.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, published by Del Rey

The Bear and the Nightgale is a re-imagining of a Russian fairytale about a wild maiden, a frost demon, and that most ubiquitous of fairytale characters, a jealous stepmother. But Arden turns what could be a very predictable if still entertaining tale into a nuanced picture of growing up and learning to make difficult decisions – sometimes in opposition family, friends, and even society.

Vasya, the tale’s ‘wild maiden’, is more than just a precocious girl with a destiny. Over the course of the novel, she grows into a clear-eyed, kind-hearted young woman who learns to balance personal desire against responsibility and obligation. Vasya’s constant battle between carving out a place for herself in a rigidly defined world and preserving who she is drives the narrative, and is echoed in the villager’s battle between two opposing ideologies – preserving the old ways and appeasing the spirits of house and forest, or rejecting them entirely in favour of a tyrannical version of Christian faith. The Bear and the Nightingale is full of ambitions, sacrifices, precarious balances – and how Vasya finds her own balance reminded me of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Finding neither option available to her acceptable, she creates her own third door. The ramifications of Vasya’s decision, after the turn of the last page, are left to the reader to decide.

Another example of intriguing characterisation is Father Konstantin, a priest sent from away from the sphere of political and social influence in Moscow to Vasya’s far-flung village of Lesnaya Zemlya. Used to adoration from the masses for his brilliantly painted icons, Konstantin’s ego is ill-served by the village’s small congregation, and his ambitions to be revered slowly sour into a lust for power – and a preoccupation with Vasya that he is afraid to question the motives of. His decline from powerful priest to pawn and madman is delicately drawn.

Not every character is quite so pitch-perfect, however. Arden’s biggest miss here is Anna Petrovna – the evil stepmother. At first meeting, we are meant to feel sympathy for her, to care about her, but she is introduced too abruptly and fleshed out too inadequately to draw such a strong response from a reader. Her journey from pious, persecuted woman to cruel, jealous shrew seems to happen mostly off-stage; even just a few moments demonstrating the effect of the strain her new and uniquely painful circumstances were having would have been enough to generate more investment in the character. Executed properly, she is the perfect foil for Vasya, and with a different build up, her fate could have been a powerful, if pitiful, moment, but ultimately she is more caricature than character.

The book is divided into three parts, covering about a decade-and-a-half, though most of the plot’s action is concentrated in Vasya’s adolescence. The first section, largely set up for the second part which contains the most of the major developments, and the third which contains the climax and resolution, suffers from slow pacing and an overabundance of characters. The first section moves rapidly through time, chronicling important events from the early days of Vasya’s mother’s pregnancy to Vasya’s late childhood in roughly the same amount of space the other sections devote to much smaller spans of time. Section two in particular contains a swift-moving plot and character development demonstrated through action and dialogue, rather than the point-to-point set-up of relevant events and tell-instead-of-show introduction to far too large a cast of players that the first section favours. Some editing and re-structuring might have had a positive effect here – but ultimately, the rough beginning does not outweigh the magical, engaging story that unfolds in later sections. (AN: I recall having similar feelings about the first several chapters of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus; if you felt that book began very slowly before picking up with the plot, you might feel that here too – best rest assured, if you ultimately enjoyed The Night Circus, I think you will find The Bear and the Nightingale just as worth your time.)

Over all, though it is not without problems, The Bear and the Nightingale is a superb debut novel. The fantasy elements create a lush context for a very real-world human drama – one many readers who are or once were young girls will probably find familiar. The world Arden creates is thorough and rich, and I was never in doubt about her knowledge or expertise. The author’s notes at the end, giving a brief history of the time period and setting of her novel, a small glossary of unfamiliar words, and a brief overview of her translational choices were all greatly appreciated. (Given my own research biases, I was especially happy to see the notes on translation; Arden speaks concisely but articulately about the deliberate choices she made in rendering Russian terminology for an English-reading audience.) This book has earned a place on my shelves; I know it’s one I’ll read again, while I eagerly await whatever Arden might have coming next (little hint: sometimes her Instagram reveals tantalising tidbits…).

 

If you read and enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale, here are some other authors and novels you might check out:

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. If you somehow missed that spectacular novel last summer, stop depriving yourself and find it now!

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern – A powerful, against-all-odds romance, a enchantingly kaleidoscopic world full of magic and illusion and danger – if you ever dreamed of running away to join the circus, this book will make you remember why.

Stardust, Neil Gaiman. For a fairytale setting, similar themes of growing up finding a place for yourself, and of course Gaiman’s incomparable storytelling skills.

Deerskin, Robin McKinley. McKinley’s retelling of the French fairytale Donkeyskin is a rich, magical tale of a young girl overcoming psychological trauma and learning to heal herself.

 

If you’ve read The Bear and the Nightgale, what did you think? New favourite, or not your thing? Any recommendations of your own to add? Let me know in the comments below!