A compelling and inventive novel set in a world where science and magic are at odds, by Robin McKinley, the Newbery-winning author of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, as well as the classic titles Beauty, Chalice, Spindle’s End, Pegasus and Sunshine
Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. Val is from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and he won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But—more importantly—what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows following him around? Magic is illegal in Newworld, which is all about science. The magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago, back when Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.
Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until earth-shattering events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage.
In this dangerously unstable world, neither science nor magic has the necessary answers, but a truce between them is impossible. And although the two are supposed to be incompatible, Maggie’s discovering the world will need both to survive.
I should start with a disclaimer, I was predisposed to like this book. I adore Robin McKinley, I’ve read Rose Daughter something like fourteen times, it was my go-to comfort read when I was in high school. That said, Shadows was fantastic all over the place. It’s full of patented Robin McKinley magic: extended adoptive family units, a band of (for the most part) animal companions and a lovely, satisfying romance. And magic, did I mention magic? Lots and lots of magic.
Let’s start with the genre. Shadows is a brilliantly strange sort of dystopian/fantasy blend unlike anything I’ve read so far. Dystopians have been all the rage and as many people have noted, they’re starting to feel formulaic and repetitive. Like there’s some sort of machine tucked away in a dusty warehouse cranking out book after book after book. Robin McKinley’s solution is to keep the grungy, totalitarian government setting and atmosphere but fill it with fairytale parts.
Maggie, our intrepid heroine, lives in Newworld, where magic has been surgically removed from society (literally) and science is king. However, there are pockets of magic beneath the fabric of reality that flare up from time to time and it’s still acknowledged and practiced in other parts of the world. Maggie describes her uncle’s job as “protecting people from gaps in reality” and that sentence just tickles me. The world building is so seamlessly integrated into the story, you’ll read what seems like a rambling narrative tangent and at the end of it realize you’ve learned about fifty crucial things.
Speaking of Maggie, she was a thoroughly enjoyable narrator. When the story begins, she’s your average high school girl. She’s still grieving the loss of her father and has a few issues with her new stepfather. She hates math, likes hanging out with her dog, working at an animal shelter and making origami (I love this bit, I’m fascinated by origami.) She’s smart, snarky and fiercely courageous but in a relatable, genuine person sort of way.
The character development isn’t limited to people. Shadows also includes one of my favorite McKinley hallmarks: a delightful gang of animal friends, including a pet algebra book. (Sorry, that could be construed as a mild spoiler, I guess. I like to think of it more as a tantalizing hint. Aren’t you insanely curious now?) Maggie’s dog, Mongo and the other members of The Family, the permanent residents of the animal shelter, all have personalities as clear and individual as Maggie’s human friends and family.
There are so many little details that build Shadows into the intricate tapestry it is. It has a vernacular all of its own. In addition to Newworld specific slang, like dreeping and loophead (which are so fun to say), it’s filled with occasional Japanese words and phrases that Maggie and her friends started using to annoy (or wire) their Japanese friend, Takahiro. I started compiling a list of all the words and their meanings and am left with a strong desire to learn Japanese. The romance is sweet and believable, McKinley is the master of the unexpected romantic twist. I shipped Maggie and her love interest from the first moment he was introduced and did a little victory dance when they got together. Telling you more would involve spoilers, so you’ll just have to read and see.
My only real complaints about the book are that it’s over and there’s no sequel. It could be said that it’s a little unbalanced, there’s so much time spent on the set-up that the climax is almost underwhelming, but it was all such a pleasure to read that it didn't bother me.
All in all, I highly recommend Shadows. It’s a fantastic example of Robin McKinley’s work and if you like it, check out her other stuff (especially if you love fairytales and fairytale retellings.) She gets far less attention than she deserves and you may end up with a few new favorites.
This review also appears on Cuddlebuggery.