There is another world, just hidden under our own. This parallel reality is very close, only diverging some hundred and thirty years ago, with the advent of the Great Fire in Chicago. Or the Great Fire here, in our world; in the “Alter,” there was no fire to make the Shades extinct. Of course, Darcy doesn’t know about the Alter. She’s never even heard of a “Shade,” whatever that is. So when she flickers out for a second—insubstantial as a ghost—that probably comes as a huge surprise, but it does explain why she was able to break that guy’s jaw with one punch and why she’s never been sick a day in her life. Now, who is this brooding and suspicious new kid in school?
I have to confess my bias upfront: I like Marie Rutkoski! In regards to my fondness for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra she once said that “…if Azula and Sokka had a baby, that’d be you.” She’s right, you know! Authors, they have a way with truth and lies and the path in-between. That is the thing about me being partial to Marie—I like her because she’s great. You know those authors where you think “I wish I could be friends with this writer!” Like that, only I am! She writes a character getting thrown out of a window just so she can have an excuse to write “defenestrate”! How can you not like that? So there is a feedback loop going on here, which means that you shouldn’t have to salt this dish too much. Just a grain or two. You might know her too: she blogs for Tor.com sometimes, and wrote an original story set in the world of The Shadow Society just for the site called “Jacks and Queens at the Green Mill.”
One of the weird things about having a pre-existing relationship with an author is that not only do you see them reflected in the work—they wrote it, after all—but you see bits of yourself folded in as well, like carbon folded into iron to make steel. And in a novel about an alternative reality, seeing slightly askew versions of yourself is particularly haunting. “…don’t embalm my body and don’t put me in a coffin…I can get better.” Hey, I said that! The fact that the character saying it is also a professional role-playing game master is just icing on the cake. Oh, I’m not saying the character in question is me, but he certainly plundered my life’s story!
I really like “alienation” stories, more than I like the “chosen one” theme or the “transformation” trope. All three are prevalent in YA, but alienation is the one for me—ask me sometime about why Superman is the best alienation story—because I think it speaks best to how I remember being a teenager. Alienation takes those feelings of being different, of not feeling quite right in your skin, and makes them true. You are different from everyone else. The Shadow Society is a particularly grim take on it—almost Grimm’s—in that Darcy isn’t just a suburban kid who feels out of place. That feeling of being odd is exacerbated and overshadowed by being a foster kid who has bumped around from home to home her whole life. The eeriness surrounding her has led to her being left unwanted and desperate for a support system.
There is an interesting Wizard of Oz undercurrent here, too, which I picked up pretty early in the text. Or hero is staring outside after a tornado warning, watching the sky darken and turn, hoping to catch the funnel of the cyclone. Hard not to see a little Dorothy in that, especially given the context of the narrative, in a story about an alienated girl taken to another world like ours, but different. Darcy’s friend Lily is the Scarecrow, underestimated but the brains of the operation. Jims with his “heart of steel” is the Tin Man, and that make Raphael—too shy to confess his feelings—the Cowardly Lion. As for Taylor—the popular girl who pops up in unexpected places—she’s the Cordelia. She says the truths that the rest of the group are incapable of thinking, let along saying, and if she says them with a bluntness bordering on cruelty, well, that is all part of the fun.
That isn’t the only literary work casting shadows over the novel, either. T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” stitches The Shadow Society together as an enduring thread from the very beginning of the story. Our hero and her romantic interest click over an in-class discussion of it and despite what appears to be initial dislike, they bond over it and begin a project adapting the poem into sculpture form. The stretch of that shadow encompasses the whole book and references and allusions to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” continue throughout.
The Shadow Society takes on the clichés of YA fiction without making a big deal about it. The love interest shows up on a motorcycle? Of course. Darcy has the ability to turn intangible and invisible? Of course she ends up in the boy’s locker room, in a nice piece of gender inversion. Heck, the start of the novel just reminds me a more high-spirited My So-Called Life. Perhaps the biggest trope turned onto its head relates directly to the romantic subplot of the novel. Not to spoil the fun, but the typical “handsome emotionally unavailable brooding loner” so common in the genre actually has to deal with the consequences of being cold and manipulative. Like if Edward Cullen actually had to deal with the fallout for being a creepy paternalistic stalker.
The worldbuilding Rutkoski displays here is neat. The Shades clothing turn immaterial with them when they vanish, which she describes as an aura like body heat. That is a…really good explanatory metaphor, actually. The set-up is a lot like Fringe, in that you’ve always got your eyes peeled to figure out what changes there are between alternate realities. A female president, Rodin’s famous statue is “The Dreamer” not “The Thinker,” there is a Jane Austin novel never published in our world, there is a famous architect named Frank Floyd Wright, and there is…no television? I’ve got to tell you, the big question hanging over the story is—are there other Alters? Worlds even farther apart? and since Shades stop aging when they become insubstantial… well, there could be all sorts of timey-wimey shenanigans that stem from that! Sounds like a sequel to me.
Mordicai Knode can’t say that all the “shadow” puns in his review are unintended. They are gloriously intended. You can see more of his blunt sense of humor on his Twitter and by following his Tumblr.
Mordicai Knode is a Macmillan employee.