Robin McKinley's newest fantasy, "Shadows," may just be one of her most brilliant books to date. Everything in the story meshes perfectly. The characters are compelling, well-defined people who become real. You know the characters are well created when the book ends and you just don't want your interactions with the characters to be over.
The story begins slowly and builds to an alarming crescendo that will keep the reader turning page after page to find out what happens. Maggie, also known as Magdag by her best friend Jill, is not happy with her new stepfather. He is short, dresses in atrocious clothing and has a heavy Oldworld accent. Worst of all, Maggie sees black shadows around him that really make her uncomfortable.
In this alternate universe, Maggie lives in Newworld, where science has replaced magic in all aspects of society. In fact, magicians are reviled and there is a procedure to rip the magic gene out of those who may have been born with it. Maggie doesn't understand that the reason she can see the shadows around her stepfather, Val, is because she has considerable magic.
Maggie's character is very down-to-earth. She is not gorgeous, she is not brilliant (in fact she struggles in math class), and she hates her stepfather. She does have some very supportive friends, including Jill and Takahiro, a friend who is half-Japanese. He is the one who taught Maggie origami, a hobby that has become more and more important to her.
Another hobby, or passion, of Maggie's is working at the animal shelter and helping animals. She convinced her mother to adopt Mongo, a border collie with unbridled energy. Being a responsible dog-owner take a lot of work, and Maggie shares the steps she took to make Mongo a respectable (almost) member of the family. The steps include lots of training and treats. And psychology. Mongo and the shelter become an important part of the story.
In addition to the strange shadows, Maggie's math textbook also seems to be reacting strangely. It appears at random times and doesn't stay where she puts it.
There are seers, witches, magicians, and even a werewolf. But it all seems so possible and so real -- this story will appeal to those who typically don't enjoy fantasy, and of course appeal greatly to those who do.
"Shadows" is a gem -- and one that readers might want to read again and again. McKinley's ending is not a complete ending. There is the promise of more action, more righting of wrongs. But McKinley doesn't plan to write this up for the reader. The future of the characters in the book, indeed the future of the world in the book, is up to the reader.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reading copy provided by the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin, for review purposes.
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