Saturday, October 22, 2011

Early Review of Sandy Williams' The Shadow Reader

Title: The Shadow Reader
Author: Sandy Williams
Publisher: Ace
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Source: Won through Goodreads FirstReads Program
Publication Date: October 25, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5

This week I’ve read some really excellent books, and this debut Urban Fantasy by Sandy Williams drew me in from the beginning. The heroine is an appealing mix of strength and vulnerability, and according to Ms. Williams’ webpage there is a sequel in the works, so I’m really looking forward to reading more of this world. If you’re a fan of UF, I think you’ll really enjoy The Shadow Reader.

McKenzie Lewis is in her early twenties, but since her teens she’s been working for the king of the fae as a shadow reader. When the fae travel, or fissure, between realms, she can look into the shadows left behind and pinpoint their locations. This has been a handy trick, since fae King Atroth is currently fighting a rebellion among the fae, and McKenzie has helped him hunt down rebels. She’s also in love with Atroth’s Swordmaster, Kyol, who protects her when she’s reading the shadows. Unfortunately, the rebels have caught up with her, and she’s kidnapped by Aren, one of the rebel leaders. Instead of having her killed, he teaches her the fae language and tries to convince her that Atroth and Kyol have been lying to her for years. When the fighting ventures into the human realm, McKenzie has to make difficult decisions about which of the fae to trust.

There’s a lot to like about this book. McKenzie is an appealing heroine who has found herself cut off from human relationships because of her abilities to read the shadows. The fae don’t concern themselves with her life in the human realm, and they simply pop in and out of her life, expecting her to drop whatever she’s doing to serve the fae king. This naturally makes her seem crazy to everyone else, because they can’t see who she’s speaking to or understand why she can’t keep a steady job. But after years of believing that the fae king is protecting her, McKenzie doesn’t know what to believe when the rebels kidnap her and begin telling her their version of what’s happening. She’s also confused by her attraction to the rebel leader, Aren, because she’s very much in love with Kyol. Watching her develop into a woman who finally acts on her own behalf instead of merely following the orders of others is really rewarding. It would have been easy to portray McKenzie as a victim, but Ms. Williams makes her a complex woman who learns to trust herself after years of disappointment at the hands of others.

While the characters are appealing, the world-building is stellar, and it will completely draw you in. The conflict between the fae factions is much more than nuanced than it would initially appear. It is clear fairly early on that McKenzie’s perceptions of who is good versus who is evil have been heavily influenced in the King’s favor, but I like that we can see how he came to make certain decisions. His swordmaster Kyol is portrayed as an honorable man faced with difficult choices, and while he has served the King faithfully for years, he, too, experiences doubt about the King’s current path. But the rebels aren’t necessarily sympathetic characters either, since some want to kill McKenzie immediately, only holding off because Aren convinces them to wait and try to bring her over to their side. This complexity makes the outcome uncertain and will keep you turning the pages to see how it all works out.

I do have two criticisms of the novel, one more serious than the other. The first is that I wasn’t completely sold on the Aren-McKenzie part of the love triangle. I was never in doubt that they were attracted to one another, but I was uncertain about his feelings for her. Does he truly love her or are his actions motivated by jealousy of her relationship with Kyol? He accuses Kyol of using McKenzie, but he also needs her help as a shadow reader. I’m still not completely convinced of the depth of his feelings, and while McKenzie does decide between Aren and Kyol in the end, the resolution leaves room for the love triangle to continue in future books.

My other criticism is stylistic. Ms. Williams writes the book in the first person present tense, and frankly that is my least favorite form of narration. It's not that I prefer third person narration over the first, because a lot of Urban Fantasy novels are written in the first person, and UF is one of my favorite genres. But when everything is narrated in the present tense, it strikes me as unsophisticated. It makes it feel as though McKenzie describes everything in real time, a la Jack Bauer in 24. It’s to Ms. Williams’ credit that the world-building, plot, and characters are so engrossing that for the most part the writing takes a backseat to the action, but at times the constant use of the present tense was jarring and drew me out of the book. I really don’t want to notice the writing over the story while I’m reading the book, and this is a serious flaw. I’m hoping that this will improve in subsequent books, as The Shadow Reader was easily one of my favorite Urban Fantasy reads in a while.

Despite its flaws, The Shadow Reader is an exciting debut and an engrossing read. I’m really looking forward to reading more about these characters and this world in the future, and Ms. Williams can’t write that sequel fast enough for me. Definitely check this one out!

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