Shadowless by Randall McNally is dark fantasy with a little something different. Not the story itself, but the structure and execution. A novel in the form of twenty short stories strung together, Shadowless is a bold attempt to show there’s more than one way to tell a tale.
“What if the gods themselves wanted you dead?
A young boy lies on a beach on a warm summer’s day. While trying to block the sun from his eyes Arpherius makes a shocking discovery; he has no shadow. Confused and bewildered he asks his uncle why he is shadowless. What he learns is a terrifying secret that will change his life forever.
Set in the Northern Realms, Shadowless is a fantasy novel about individuals born without a shadow. Spawned by the malevolent deities of this world these children of the gods are persecuted at every turn. Hunted by the high priests who carry out the wishes of their gods, hunted by the Shadow Watchers; armed soldiers who are assigned to each temple, and hunted by the gods themselves.
Part-mortal and part-god, the Shadowless live for centuries and face a battle for survival, constantly on the run or hiding in far-flung corners of the Northern Realms.
Soon their lives and fates become intertwined, expedited by the mysterious monk Amrodan. Driven by a series of visions Amrodan travels through the Northern Realms, seeking out the Shadowless and trying to enlist their help to take a stand and fight back against the gods.” – Goodreads blurb
The aspect of this book that stands out the most, and has the greatest impact on the narrative is it’s structure. It isn’t one long narrative like most novels. Instead it is comprised of twenty short stories along with a prologue and epilogue. Twenty short stories each with their own narrative, protagonist, POV, etc. I want to point it out here at the outset so that you keep it in mind as I discuss everything else and then I’ll return the structure and whether it succeeded.
This short story format was a little strange at first and took a while to get used to. For about half the book it wasn’t evident how the stories connected apart from the overall device that children born of the gods have no shadow and they are hunted down by priests, the Shadow Watchers, and the gods themselves. They are feared in the land because anyone caught harboring one will be killed as well, even at times whole villages at once. As offspring of the gods they age very slowly, live for centuries, and develop godlike powers that grow stronger as they age. When they are killed their powers return to their godly parent which in turns makes the god grow stronger.
Each story focuses on one (at times more than one) shadowless character and some predicament they are in where their lives are in danger. As I mentioned, at first the stories don’t really seem connected apart from the fact that each one seems to offer up some additional detail about what it means to be shadowless. Over time though a broader narrative becomes evident and an actual connected plot does appear and with it the stakes are raised.
Normally I start with something about the protagonist and minor characters. That’s hard to do with this book. Each story in this book has a different POV protagonist. And there are a lot of characters. Every now and then a character from one story shows up in another. Some characters only seem to appear once, serve some purpose to illuminate some new aspect of the plot, and then are never seen again (often because they die). If there’s one character that shows up more than the others it’s probably the monk Amrodan. Yet I’d hesitate to call him the protagonist. In the overall story I don’t know that any one character can be labeled the main character or the one that the main narrative revolves around.
The world building in Shadowless is much like the structure. It comes in bits and pieces where you learn a little more with each succeeding story. The book is set in the Northern Realms, a land made up of numerous smaller countries. Each story is set largely within one of these smaller realms, often just within one city, town, wood, or home. It’s with the accumulation of these tales that the broader world building becomes evident. At the same time there isn’t a ton of depth to it. Each realm is pretty similar and could be easily switched out with another. Where some of the unique elements come in are in a few of the cities and towns.
The magic system is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the world building in Shadowless. Magic in this case is really the power of the gods. Each child of a god develops some godlike magical ability. It may be the ability to move really fast, slow time, shape shift, come back to life, or super human strength. Whatever the case, some essence of the parent god is given to their offspring and it grows in power over time. With it comes the reality that at some point the god will want it that power back. Once their son or daughter is killed the power, not stronger than before returns to the god making him even more powerful than before.
In terms of tone and theme Shadowless is a dark story. For most of the book there isn’t much in the way of hope. It’s one story after another of the shadowless being hunted down and killed, or being used for their abilities under threat of death.
The background to the story is dark too. Centuries ago the gods fought a civil war in which all of the female gods were killed. This also comes with a trigger warning. Since all the female gods were killed the male gods can only mate with female humans to produce children. They do so by raping them. This is an old story. It’s one told countless times by ancient civilizations, and depending on your point of view even in the Christ story. But it is definitely a narrative choice that will leave some readers unsure if they want to read the book. No rape scenes are depicted in the stories, but it is brought up in a number of them as an integral plot point. Add to that the knowledge that the human women do not survive childbirth and you’ve got an even darker story.
So you’ve got dark and traumatic origins and a harrowing existence that leads to certain death at the hands of your father or his followers and you end up with a pretty bleak story all told. Hope is pretty non-existent for the characters for much of the book. But it does appear. You just don’t really see it until you’re well into the story and even then there’s no guarantee things will work out in the end.
So…does it work? That’s the key question. And the answer for me is…kinda. Like with any book, readers won’t have the same reaction. Let me say first that I’m not typically a fan of short stories. So for me to like them they have to blow me away. I can’t say that any one story in this book blew me away. Some were good, others were a little flat, many were just fine. The writing was good, though at times it suffered from a little too much telling and not showing.
When strung together it’s kind of a mixed bag too. With this format you’re only with one character for a little while before moving on to another. You get one story that doesn’t seem to be fully resolved, then another, and then another, and so on. It takes a while for the overall connected narrative to begin to appear. Had I not been reading this as an author request I might have set it down and DNF’d it. I’m glad I didn’t because that integrated story became much more interesting as the final half to one-third of the book progressed. But even though I came to appreciate that overall narrative the sheer number of characters and structure of the book didn’t allow for much in the way of character growth and development. There was some, but it wasn’t profound. Likewise story arcs were less pronounced and while there may have been tension in individual stories the overall tension suffered.
Yet I really appreciated the attempt at creating an overall narrative through the use of short stories strung together. At times they were out of sync which did help to keep you guessing at what was happening. Each one doled out just a little bit more information to keep things moving along. And the conclusion definitely had some surprises. So overall…Shadowless is daring and succeeds in what I think McNally set out to do. Whether you enjoy it or not I think will ultimately come down to whether you enjoy short stories more than me and/or whether you like reading books that take risks in their storytelling structure and format. I encourage you to give it a try and see what you think.
I was sent a copy of this book for review by the author.
3 of 5 Stars
Author: Randall McNally
Publication Date: December 6, 2017