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?