I’m three-quarters of the way through Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabron and I’m just not feeling it–not the characters, not the world, not the story. Passages go by where I realize my inattentiveness several pages later, reading but not registering, and then having to flip back to figure out why Will is doing this thing or why the wolf is over there. Not a good sign, and one that chafes because Wharton’s glacially-paced Icefields kept me far more engaged. Much more happens in Shadow, yet the impact is much less.
I wonder if is an issue with the book or with my gradual falling-out current Young Adult literature as a whole. I am not the intended audience for Shadow, while I most definitely was the intended audience for Salamander. Shadow follows the stylistic conventions of current YA closely, too closely. Wharton’s unique way with words has been bled away, and it feels like a book written by Someone Not Named Tom Wharton. That sense, strangely enough, reflects the thrust of the text: there is another world called “the Perilous Realm”, a land where fictional narratives come from and where they are true, besieged by a dark lord who wants to bring all stories together as one. Interpret this as: many stories from many authors, forged by commercial demand into a single formula allowing only slight variation, and you can get at the tragedy I see (so far) in Shadow.
There is still potential here, which is why I’ll read on to the end. The message of the novel, even when delivered this way, is a good one: proliferation of voices over the dogma of the single story, an echo of Alberto Manguel’s thesis in The City of Words. Shadow’s “real world” segments are made generic enough that it’s not clear the author is Canadian, but the shape of the journey to the other world is in keeping with Canadian fantasy. Shadow shares motifs and themes with Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar tapestry: Fionavar and the Perilous Realm are story-worlds that serve as the source for the myths and fairy tales in our world, both are portal fantasies, both make liberal use of the “weaving” as the primary metaphor for storytelling. It lacks Fionavar’s clumsy sexual and physical violence, which is good, and the world feels full in the same way Fionavar felt empty, but Shadow also lacks the moments where Kay broke out of the mould of the 70s/80s fantasy style he wrote in to deliver moments of strange poignancy and wonder.
Shadow is not messy, but a dose of messiness might help.