The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

6/10 Parts are exquisitely written, with focused attention to the tiniest details of character and place.

Just like Peter Pan, the people in Peng Shepherd’s novel, The Book of M, are having trouble with their shadows. For reasons that never become known, shadows are disappearing, sometimes from an individual, sometimes whole cities at once. Told by four linked characters, with a multitude of diverse experiences threaded through their stories, this book follows their course through a world fundamentally changed by destructive magic. 

If you’d asked me any time during the first half of this book what the final star rating would be, I would have said 5. Easily. There is an intriguing introduction to our main narrators, their distorted normality revealing that in the ‘now’ of their world something is very wrong. Flashbacks within each tale take the reader to the start of it all, when shadows were first lost. Initially, people are stunned, but excited- it’s a whole new phenomenon, something inexplicable and even wondrous. One shadow gone, then a group here, and another there. It’s newsworthy and everyone’s talking about it. Scientists are baffled. Religion is called into play. Anyone who’s anyone has an opinion and wants to know more. At this point, so did I. The situation is perfectly pitched, so realistic in the way each new piece of information is passed around the world, from person to person, with video clips uploaded and scrutinised, all kinds of rumours whispered. When things start to go wrong, when people without their shadows begin to forget, the tentative panic and fear is equally genuine. Just like an outbreak of some unknown virus, people are quarantined and studied. Then the overriding question, ‘why is this happening’ shifts to ‘how can we stop it’ as the violence and terror overwhelms everything. 

What becomes clear is that The Forgetting is more than just memory loss, the inability to remember what was or what is allows the shadowless to create their own reality. And it is chilling. If a shadowless doesn’t remember a whole marketplace? Well then, it’s gone. What happens when you can’t remember how to use your front door? Eventually it disappears and you remain, stuck until you waste away in a box of your own creation. And if you forget to breathe? Death. The picture of a world destroyed builds with each horrifying possibility, many of which stopped me in my tracks because I’d never considered it could go like that… This new place is a twisted, nightmare reality of clashing memories and monstrous creations. Of course, the author plays hard and fast with any notion of rules. What about all the people that remembered the market? If you can forget a place or person and it disappear, why would not remembering you need to breathe kill you, since not breathing would be the new reality? Anyway, who cares, this bit was brilliant. Especially as all the usual pathways of societal disintegration in dystopian fiction is exacerbated to a ridiculous and wildly fun degree by this one hook.

Then at the halfway point it loses its cohesion. All of a sudden, it felt slow and I had to force myself to pick it up again. Each narrator’s story descended into a surreal dreamscape, with only tenuous links to their original goals, and their sense of urgency to do whatever the hell it is they wanted to do lost its power. In fact, the whole book from this point was convoluted and bloated with unnecessary sidelines that read like creative writing exercises, shoehorned in to fulfil the requirements of the final battle for New Orleans. Yes, an actual magical battle. The book morphs from dystopia to fantasy, from humanity facing a crisis to a city ruled by a blind man with an elephant shadow. Seriously. And that doesn’t even cover the kick in the teeth by the way it all ends for the ‘M' from the title. The sheer randomness feeds into the mounting feeling of pointlessness and disappointment. 

More than most dystopian fiction, this aims for literary adroitness, and for the most part, achieves it. Parts are exquisitely written, with focused attention to the tiniest details of character and place. But just because you’ve allowed magic into your world, doesn’t mean you can go crazy with it. The author lost sight of both the characters and the plot in her desire to play tricks. Any time you wonder at the logic or likelihood of path taken, the answer is MAGIC. But the essential problem with disconnecting people from themselves, each other, and the world around them is that you remove the emotion that goes alongside. By the end, even by halfway, there was none left. Ultimately, this is a book about forgetting that will be easily forgotten.

ARC via Netgalley

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