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.
It often seems to me that there are two distinct Robin McKinleys. There’s the lyrical, even poetic spinner of fairy tales like Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter and The Blue Sword, and the more contemporary fantasy voice which produced Dragonhaven and Shadows. What links the two together is McKinley’s approach to magic. In every book she writes, magic is unpredictable, incomprehensible, instinctive, and unknowable. It may follow patterns, but it doesn’t follow rules. This is magic the way M. K. Jemison believes it should be: “organic… mysterious, silly, weird” and definitely “not. Supposed. To make. Sense.”*
Shadows throws you in at the deep end, both in terms of its magic and in terms of its world. The teenage narrator, Maggie, uses slang words and concepts like “cobeys” and “silverbugs”, mostly without explaining them — and why should she explain them, when to her they are just part of what everyone knows? Newworld, where Maggie lives, is just similar enough to our world to make sense on the surface, and just different enough to leave you off balance. That’s completely appropriate, because the magic Maggie encounters has the same disorienting effect on her — literally as well as figuratively. You learn to understand Newworld the way you learned to understand the real world, or the way Maggie learns to deal with magic — through immersion and experience. That’s typical of McKinley’s worldbuilding, and in this case, it works brilliantly.
Maggie is a wonderful character, both like and quite unlike most of McKinley’s other heroines. I love her voice, which is completely authentic; her actions, speech, and relationships are all believable and realistic in context. She’s a typical teen in many ways: she goes to high school, she’s not very good at math, she’s thinking about college, she has a best friend, she uses slang a lot (including Japanese slang she picked up because another friend is Japanese.) In other ways she’s less typical: she volunteers at the animal shelter, she befriended a young immigrant — that Japanese friend I mentioned — shortly after he arrived in her school, and she’s essentially been a second parent to her younger brother since her father died when she was 10. Her relationships with both her brother and her mother are strong and loving, but no more perfect than Maggie herself. They bicker sometimes, as families do, but there’s no questioning the bonds between them.
Maggie is a lot stronger and braver than she thinks, but when weird things begin happening and she starts seeing creepy shadows that aren’t there — mostly in the vicinity of her mother’s new fiance/husband, Val — she refuses to believe or accept the evidence of her own senses, not just once but several times in a row. At the same time, she tries to minimize the time she spends around Val, so she won’t have to deal with whatever-it-is she isn’t seeing. I think that was the point at which McKinley really sold me on the character. Don’t we all try to convince ourselves that something we’ve experienced didn’t or couldn’t really have happened, because we don’t want to believe it? Of course, in the end — well, no, in the middle — Maggie has to accept the reality of the unusual things she sees and hears: to accept them, and learn to deal with them, and even to trust them.
It’s odd that the publisher’s description of the book doesn’t mention Maggie’s friends Jill and Takahiro (Taks), nor the animals, both mundane and magical, which play a substantial role in the book. Maggie’s love for and skill with animals is critical to her development as a character as well as to the plot as a whole. I really love Mondo, her overly-energetic herding dog. He’s all dog — McKinley steers well clear of anthropomorphizing any of the mundane animals — but he’s also a lovable and goofily comic character in his own right. McKinley always writes great animals, so the importance of Mondo and the other shelter animals didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Takahiro seems at first to be almost a minor character, but gradually and then rapidly increases in significance. He’s brilliant, geeky, a bit of a loner, and an expert at origami. I like him very much, but I admit to being startled twice by the direction(s) in which McKinley went with him. Maggie’s algebra book is another of my favorite characters — which won’t make any sense until you’ve read the book. Casimir, who is mentioned in the blurb, turns out to be both less and more important than he sounds; I wanted to know a little more about him. Jill is a great best friend to Maggie, and again, McKinley portrays their relationship with just the right amount of banter, mutual loyalty, and occasional disagreement.
You can guess from the blurb that there’s a romance in the book, but I loved that it came with an unforeseen twist. Or two. And that it’s truly a teen relationship — sweet and lovely and unexpected, with not a hint of the “forever-fated-soulmates” trope that seems so ubiquitous in recent YA fantasy.
One of the best aspects of the book is Maggie’s relationship with her stepfather Val. Adolescents are usually wary of accepting a new stepparent, and Maggie is no exception. In fact, at first her disliking for Val seems like nothing more than typical teen sullenness. But I loved that McKinley didn’t go in the obvious direction with this, despite initial appearances — and that Maggie eventually has to come to terms with Val as well as with the unusual things occurring in her vicinity.
Some readers may complain that the book doesn’t really end. It’s true, some things remain unexplained by the end — unexplained, but not truly unfinished. I found the ending very satisfying, and if there is no sequel, Shadows can certainly stand on its own. On the other hand, there’s plenty of room for a sequel or two.**
I’ll be honest, Robin McKinley is one of my favorite fantasy authors. I adore her fairy tale retellings, and The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favorites. But I’m less enamored of Dragonhaven, and that had me a little nervous going in to Shadows. If it isn’t evident yet from my review, I needn’t have worried; I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows. It’s entertaining, the characters are terrific, the worldbuilding and the magic are intriguing, and it certainly pulled me in and kept me turning the pages! More than that, McKinley’s storytelling artistry shines throughout the book.
*M. K. Jemison, “But but but — WHY does magic have to make sense?”
**Speaking personally, I’d love a sequel, but that’s always a little dangerous with McKinley. I’m still waiting for Pegasus II, and I’ve heard rumors that there may even be a Pegasus III in the offing, so I’m not holding my breath for a hypothetical Shadows II. ETA: As of November 2016, there’s still no sign of another book of any description from McKinley. However, the last few years have been difficult for her personally, due to her husband Peter Dickinson’s illness and death and her own health issues, so it is not surprising.