Whew! I just turned the last page of Shadow Kin by M.J. Scott and cannot wait to write about it. What a treat! What a surprise! I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in the same way: I thought it was going to be one thing, but it turned out to be so much more.
In the disclaimer department: I have never read Twilight. I have never read anything that would qualify as a contemporary paranormal. I’ve read some Ursula K. Le Guin. J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve read some futuristic dystopian stuff like Hyperion and Neuromancer. But M.J. Scott’s wonderful book was a revelation.
Like most great books, it sort of pales in the summary: “Hired assassin falls for her target. Worlds collide.” Sounds about as original as “Mopey guy goes on a whaling boat for a few months.” Or “British girl thinks guy is really arrogant, then realizes he is wonderful.” Or maybe I thought this book was great because it felt like it was written for me personally, to read at this very moment in my life. Maybe I would have found it less excellent at some other time of my life...but no, I can’t think of any point in my life when this book would have disappointed me. So here goes. The why of it.
It all boils down to two words—the main reason I don’t read Frank Herbert and Stephenie Myers and J.K. Rowling—World Building. When I hear those two words, I run. I feel like I need a primer or a legend or a special dictionary. And that makes me feel EXcluded. Of course, that is the whole beauty of what makes all “you people” feel so INcluded. Everyone is born knowing nothing about Dune or Harry Potter, and in the reading of those books you are woven into those worlds and love being there and being one of the “chosen few” (millions) who have taken the time to decode the language and nuances and secret handshakes of those worlds. I guess it could be laziness or reverse snobbery on my part, but I just don’t want to go there. I like it here on planet earth, thank you very much. (Oh, silly Megan.)
So, when I was presented with the opportunity to read my first urban fantasy, or what one blurb described as “a steam-punky romantic fantasy with vampires” I thought, “What the hell? Might as well see what all the fuss is about.” So at least I could be dismissive on good authority.
What a fool I have been.
This was such a great read. The plotting, the pacing, the characters, the (dare I say it) World Building. (The world is sort of Victorian London-ish. Buckskins and Beasts. It worked for me.) Before I even turned to page one I had jotted the following note: “Love the cover: badass, sexy, leather, knife, minarets.” And then under the opening poem (reminiscent of Tolkien and Le Guin) I noted: “media is message; language is evocative, just as good historical/Regency romance language is.” M.J. Scott’s voice (voices, really, since it is told in two first-person POVs) is immediately accessible. In that introductory poem she writes “all legends have a basis in truth and so it is with us” and immediately I thought, “all great fiction has a basis in truth and so it is with this book.”
And then there were words and references I didn’t know—like Wards and Fae and Greenglass and Veiled World—and I didn’t even care. Because Lily had been sent to kill Simon! But he can save her! Within minutes, like by page three, I was totally there. Sucked in. Completely. (Cue literary jealousy. This is not easy: to drop the reader in the midst of everything without assuming too much or too little, to have the reader feel a part of it, without revealing too much or too little.) And then I was just the happy twig on the proverbial river. Joyfully underlining timeless phrases that simultaneously pleased my ear and deftly painted the characters:
I didn’t know what he’d done. I never ask. The blade doesn’t question the direction of the cut.
And names have power. “ ’Shadow’ will do. It’s what they call me,” I said, lifting my chin.
“I didn’t ask what ’they’ call you,” he said. “I asked your name.”
Treated more like a pet, or rather, perhaps a hound puppy—raised for a purpose. Valued but not indulged. Treated with a firm hand in case I turned vicious.
Again. Sign me up. Valued but not indulged. So perfect. I have been repeating that little sentence all weekend. This was page 11 and I was already feeling I’d arrived at a slumber party with all my favorite conflicted heroines: La Femme Nikita, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, Hannah. They’re bad. They’re good. They’re bad. By the end of Chapter One of Shadow Kin I was barking random, effusive things to my husband across the room, like, “Joesph Campbell!...The Searchers!...Transformation!...Redemption!”
So there I am on a bedrock of all my favorite Big Themes and M.J. (we’re now on a first-name basis in my mind) goes and adds all this fingertip-tingling sexiness (more of the profound longing variety than the explicit variety) and as if that wasn’t enough, she goes and makes all sorts of incredibly apt analogies and metaphors about the nature of addiction and why we do these terribly self-destructive things, when we just know we shouldn’t. Yes, some of that is played out through the impossibly tempting orgasm-producing vampire blood, but, again, I didn’t even care. Because it was so much about every addiction, as when Lily is contemplating going back to her tormentor, Lucius:
But it might be myself I had to convince. Admitting that Lucius wanted me dead was harder than I thought. Fear crawled my spine and sent icy shards through my stomach at the thought of him turning on me. I tried to push it away but it tightened my throat and sped my heart. Deep down, I wondered if there was part of me that wanted to go back to him, insane as that might be. Disgust chased away fear. Could I really want that? Maybe Bryony was right and I was just a trained dog after all, willing to lick the hand that hit me in the vague hope of some sliver of affection.
Who hasn’t been there? Every bad-bad-bad boyfriend who promises everything and offers nothing. Everything that makes us feel like we have no choices in life, that we are bound and tied to situations and desperate confines of our own making. Because it is all of our own making, isn’t it? And the fear of admitting that. And then thinking we can make a change when a glimmer of hope or a possibility of real change presents itself. Isn’t it so much easier to just stay trapped?
Addiction is such a huge part of my life and such a huge part of this book. There was a great piece by Will Self recently about his blood disease (featured in Granta, and excerpted in The Guardian) in which he spoke in the most gruesome, factual terms about his heroin addiction and current bloody situation. He is an amazing writer, so I wouldn’t much care what he wrote about, but he does write particularly well about addiction. No one becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs or sex because it is some hideous thing. They become addicted because it is intense and beautiful and alluring and euphoric. And then, only after, it becomes destructive and cruel and relentless. But everyone in our feel-good world tries to jump to the destruction and gets all hazy about the euphoria, the better to wag their fingers at our adolescent curiosity, lest we think one sip or one transgression might be just the thing.
M.J. Scott does not gloss over that allure of the evil. The conflict is so perfectly desperate. But there is so much action that it never feels angsty. These characters fight and run and torment themselves and each other so beautifully. I shan’t say more or you’ll think I am gushing (because I am). I’ve heard that converts are the worst proselytizers and the last thing I want to be is a proselytizer. So I won’t tell you to run and get this book. (But, pssst, to any of you first-timers out there, anyone who has never wanted to read an urban fantasy or a paranormal or a vampire, or even a romance for that matter, I think you’d really really like this book. Just my opinion.)
Yes, Shadow Kin is pulp fiction. It is fast and steamy and predictable. But it is also stealthy. These Big Themes are lurking there if you want them. Just like Kim is just a story about a boy in India. Yeah, right.
Megan Mulry recently signed a three book deal with Sourcebooks.