Book Review: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd - cover“A harrowing and heartbreaking tale that will bend your mind while it crushes your soul.”

A man in India loses his shadow. Doctors and scientists around the world are baffled by this phenomenon, unable to explain how or why this has happened. As they begin to study this man, others begin to lose their shadows. While the scientists aim their focus to this new group of people, the original man with no shadow begins to lose his memories. He forgets more and more every day. Friends, family, himself … all gone. Across the world, another man is in a terrible accident. Unable to remember anything of his past, yet able to make new memories, he begins the torturous journey of putting his life back together, oblivious to the fate his condition has given him. As more and more people begin to lose their shadows, the world begins to crack. By the time the strange malady reaches the United States, panic has set it, and our way of life is irrevocably changed. The world has become the setting of our deepest collective nightmare; apocalyptic and chaotic. A young couple, hiding out in an abandoned building, have decided to stay there, surviving as best as they can. The world outside has turned on them, dangerous and unpredictable.

Then the young woman loses her shadow. Fearful for what could happen, she makes a decision that will change her and her husband’s lives forever.

The Book of M, the debut novel by Peng Shepherd, is a harrowing and heartbreaking tale that will bend your mind while it crushes your soul. Shifting through multiple narrators with characters that come alive on the page before your very eyes, Shepherd’s story mixes the weird—losing our shadows—with a fear we can all relate to—losing our memories. If the concept that our shadows may be the key to our memories is disturbing, then rest assured that she manages to take the concept even further than that, all within a saga that will capture your imagination and tug at your emotions. At first glance, the story may seem somewhat high-concept, yet Shepherd grounds the subject matter to her characters in such a way that is natural and completely without confusion. She certainly does not spoon-feed her readers, yet you don’t need a PhD in psychology, physics, or philosophy to understand the story.

Shepherd’s characters thrust the story along, and these story people are carefully drawn and fully realized. The cast is large and diverse, yet each character stands out and stakes their claim to be part of the story without it feeling forced. The young couple, Ory and his wife Max, form the nucleus of this story, as well as provide the starting point for what becomes a road trip through post-apocalyptic America. Two central groups emerge once the story gets underway, both eventually headed to one central location: New Orleans. The groups meet many different people on their journeys; survivors looking for kindred souls, and damaged people that turn their fear into brutality. Shepherd keeps a lot of the violence off the page, but in the scenes when she does show the violence, the action has meaning, and the end results are devastating. The story moves back and forth in time, beginning in the middle with Max and Ory while getting us up to speed with the other characters in the story. Shepherd avoids the infodump altogether, weaving backstory to character. We come to love these characters, and to care about them. Shepherd uses a mix of 3rd person POV for most of the characters, but also shifts to a 1st person POV for Max early on through a recording device. With deliberate pacing, and a little skillful misdirection, she moves the story along, building suspense so we just have to know what happens next to these characters.

With such a mind-bending concept—loss of shadow connected to loss of memory—it’s difficult to categorize this novel. Part horror, part science-fiction, part fantasy, Shepherd hits the trifecta of speculative fiction and knocks it out of the park. The loss of one’s memories is certainly a frightening thing, and Shepherd handles that inevitable regression with considerable gusto, taking the concept further than you could imagine. At times, the story becomes quite surreal, and Shepherd fearlessly weaves the weird elements into the mix, which can be a little jarring the first time you encounter them on the page. Tapping into the collective unconscious, shared memories, and an unstable reality which is an effect of those concepts, we confront strange visuals that at first may not make sense, and remain ambiguities without explanation, yet never take away from the story one bit. It seems that memory loss is the ultimate price for these ‘magical’ elements. If there’s one complaint, albeit a small one, it’s that Shepherd grounds the concept of losing one’s shadow and memories so well that when we first encounter the magical elements of the story, it’s a little shocking. And that’s the effect she’s after here, a shock to the system that enhances the story. As the story shifts from post-apocalyptic to post-society, with the shadowed and shadowless forming uneasy alliances, cults even, Shepherd takes these factions to their inevitable ends. Furthermore, she works in folklore and yes, even Peter Pan, into the story confidently and seamlessly. The conclusion of the story is a surreal and heart wrenching twist of the knife, logical yet completely unpredictable.

Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M hits all the right notes, delivering a genre blending story that will blow your mind as well as scorch your heart, with an explosive and emotional ending you won’t see coming. There’s a lesson here, subject to interpretation of course, that while our memories are only a part of what makes us human, it is those same memories that make us human in the end, so cherish each moment this life has to offer. This is a very strong debut novel from an imaginative writer who knows how to get the craziest ideas on the page with characters we can’t get enough of. Shepherd is definitely a writer to keep your eye on, and we can’t wait to read what she has in store for us next.

BOB PASTORELLA

Publisher: William Morrow
Paperback: 492 (pps)
Release Date: 5 June 2018

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