Apologies for the long unplanned hiatus. It turns out that moving cities and starting a new job takes up a lot of your time! Hopefully I’ll be able to start posting with more regularity. To kick us off again, a book I was sent for review by its author, Daniel Ingram-Brown, who may be the world’s most patient man and who you should definitely check out here or on his Twitter.
Rise of the Shadow Stealers is one of those books that you would never normally find but somehow stumble across – or in my case, get sent a copy after a Twitter connection – and reading it makes your week. The premise is charming, fanciful and wonderfully meta: set on an island where fictional characters are trained to fit their roles in their respective novels, Fletcher and Scoop team up for a quest to restore their lost memories of their lives before they were at Blotting’s Academy and to attend the wedding of the mysterious Storyteller.
I have to say I found Rise of the Shadow Stealers rather surprising, and not in a bad way. I came to it assuming from the cover and blurb that it would be children’s fiction (not that that’s a bad thing in the slightest. Critics sniffily dismissing something as children’s fiction irritates me no end). It’s actually quite sophisticated for that genre though, interweaving a delightfully whimsical fantasy plot with more mature themes, like maintaining morality in difficult times and finding your purpose, and drawing heavily on religious symbolism and metaphor throughout. This can get a little heavy-handed in places, particularly the religious parallels, but for the most part it’s skilfully interwoven with the fantasy narrative that means you can read it on whatever level you’d like: whimsical fantasy, Christian literature, good old fashioned morality tale and so on. A lot of reviews made comparison to the Narnia series and I can definitely see their point. Rise of the Shadow Stealers stands on its merits as a charming fantasy novel, but it really comes into its own when you delve deeper and think about the messages behind it all.
While the plot is technically about Fletcher and Scoop’s quest to reach the Storyteller’s wedding, it’s as much about their growth as characters as it is about getting from to B. This is a world inhabited by purposeful stereotypes (the infinitely wise but slightly batty old mentor, the outrageously evil witch, and even one character who proudly identifies herself as a Snob), who can at times feel a little 2-D by themselves, but this does help to emphasise the fact that the two protagonists develop naturally and realistically enough that I was really very fond of them by the end. Their flaws are what make them important as characters, and so they’re nicely fleshed out and allowed to make mistakes. Fletcher in particular undergoes some notable development, and his transformation is well handled and enjoyable to witness, because the characters, like the rest of the book, are charming and you find yourself really rooting for them as they undergo their quest.
The real triumph of the novel, however, is the world building. You can really tell that Ingram-Brown had great fun creating Fullstop Island (which is just the most adorable name ever) from the ground up to create a setting that lives beyond what we see in the story. It’s my favourite kind of world building too, where tiny details and minor characters are fleshed out beyond just filling their role to advance the plot, even if they just appear in once scene. Particular favourites of mine were the batty and slightly weird ladies who run the tea shop and one very special character who appears at the end, who you will have to read the book to find out about. If nothing else convinces you to give Rise of the Shadow Stealers a go, the joy of it’s construction should be all the persuasion you need.
You’ve probably noticed the common theme in this review: ‘charming’. You can’t help but enjoy yourself while reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone out there who needed a little cheer to brighten their week. I’m definitely looking forwards to the sequel and what Daniel Ingram-Brown has up his sleeve for his characters next.