CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 6. . . .November 7, 2008
Shadow-Town. (The Vastlands: Book One).
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2008.
280 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-162-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-163-1 (hc).
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Andrea Galbraith.
"Don't be mad, Baby Rosie. You re lucky: babies will never go to see Shadow-Town. Babies can go on dreaming happy baby dreams."
"All right," Rose said, despairing. "All right. Just let me sleep. Shut up and let me sleep."
Then Rose saw Jack's face suddenly appear right before her, hanging upside-down, large and strange. Still her cousin Jack, but the Jack she hated, the Jack that would be there all the long summer, the Jack she would never get away from. Rose whipped the corner of her sheet at his face, but she knew it wouldn't do any good.
Jack squeezed his eyes shut and whispered, "Don't worry, baby. Baby Rosie will never go there because she doesn't even know the Words to keep the Whisperers away. The yd just steal little Rosie and lock her up in the attic of the Tall House with the birds and with the bats, and make her spin yarn all night while they laughed in their awful thin voices. The yd lick at Baby Rosie's face with their whips, and in the day Tam and I would climb up to look at her through the spotty windows, and we'd laugh, but they wouldn't catch us, because we know the Words."
And it was more than a moment before Rose could bring herself to say, "What are the Words?"
He swung down closer, so that his looming face almost touched hers. "Terrible words," he said, very softly.
Rose and Jack Tender are 13-year-old cousins who toil in grim conditions on their grandmother's farm. When the grandmother fears she's caught the sleeping sickness that has invaded the settlement, she sends them to their Great-Aunt Constance. On their way, they are ambushed by Jack's friend, Tamlin aka Tam, the half-wild son of the Beadle of the settlement. The children dare and taunt each other to stray from their path into the forbidden Bound-lands and Tanglewood. In the woods, they are cajoled by the awful voices of the Whisperers to come work for them in Shadow-Town. Tam tries to hold the Whisperers off while Rose and Jack flee. They find refuge with the mysterious Red Man who keeps them safe from other terrors as long as they agree to work for him. But Jack leaves to look for Tam and finds him crowned the new slave king of the Whisperers. Jack is forced to work alongside the undead thralls in Shadow-Town until Tam's father comes looking for Tam. The Beadle shows Jack how to subdue the Whisperers by casting iron on them. The Mayor is harder to defeat, and the Beadle offers Jack in place of Tam as the new king. Jack must use an even stronger shadow bane than iron to escape this fate. Meanwhile, Rose travels into the desert to the tower that the Speculators Whick and Snap are building as part of a scheme to claim all the surrounding land. They want her to witness their surveying and claim of the land, but she calls down a storm which destroys the tower. She is found in the desert by Tam, and the children go back to their grandmother's farm for a rest, but with Whick and Snap still alive and hatching new plots, their reprieve from trouble may be very short.
Shadow-Town is set in a farming community where new land is still being broken, and transportation is by wagon, carriage or the eerie coffin-trains. It is a dark historical fantasy, and the author uses diction appropriate to these genres, which means that, at times, the prose is dense and sentence constructions are unusual. In general, this aids in establishing the tone of the book, but it sometimes hampers the flow of the story, especially in shorter scenes.
The world of the novel is authentic and well-realized, but this richness of setting leads to scenes involving exposition, especially early in the novel, that introduce people, place and history. This affects the pace early on, but once the children are on their journey and facing the dangers that have been talked about earlier, the story moves much more quickly. The book is very eventful, almost as if the action of two or three novels has been telescoped into one. While it is always possible to follow where the characters are at any point, it is not always clear why they are doing what they are doing. However, the longer scenes are gripping and powerful as the care that has been taken to establish this alternate world helps the reader be fully drawn into the drama.
Rose and Jack are complex and vivid characters whose relationship is honest and believable. They resent each other, take out their frustrated aggression on each other, but are loyal to one another. Tamlin, who often abuses both of the cousins, also has Jack's loyalty as Tam was the one who first took him to Shadow-Town and showed him many other secrets. Rose and Jack need some help from their elders, the Red Man and the Beadle, but in the most dire consequences they have to rely on their own judgment and courage. Rose emerges as the most self-reliant and determined of the children by the end of the story. This is especially satisfying as she, an artist and sensitive by nature, has been earlier mocked by Tam and Jack as a baby.
The hilarious scenes with the cross-talking Whick and Snap are highlights of the book. But the duo are not merely comic characters: while they initially seem like bumbling cranks, as the story continues, it becomes clear that they are also the core of the evil in this world.
There are no easy or complete victories in Shadow-Town, just an uneasy peace bought through the farmers and Whisperers reaching a new Accommodation, or peace agreement. The story is far from over as this is the first book of a four-part series.
Andrea Galbraith is a student librarian and writer based in Vancouver, BC.
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