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by G.P. Taylor
Published by Faber, 2003
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback, large print, audio cassette, audio CD
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Reviewed by: Greg Slade
Shadowmancer has attracted much publicity (and sales) and has been touted as a Christian alternative to J.K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter books. (Including such irresponsible slogans as "Hotter than Potter", which the sales figures simply don't bear out.) Then, too, it is held up as an example of every wannabe author's dream: originally, Taylor self-published the book, and sales in local bookshops were so brisk that it was picked up by a major publishing house. I'm afraid that I simply can't share other people's enthusiasm. While not actually bad, this work needs thorough editing.
One element which annoyed me was my standard pet peeve: characters tend to do or say things, not because it would be in character for them to do so, but because the plot requires it. In fact, sometimes, characters do things which are against their own best interest, or even which they know cannot possibly succeed, for no motivation which is explained to the reader. (And sometimes, people act out of character for no discernible reason. For instance, Kate Coglan is introduced as a tomboy tougher and more resilient than the average boy, but then a couple of chapters later, she is put into a dress, and seems to spend the rest of the book on the verge of tears. The plot requires neither the extreme tomboy she is introduced as, nor the girly-girl she turns into, still less the sudden transition from one extreme to the other. It's almost as if Taylor changed his mind part of the way through the story, but didn't bother to go back and make the character consistent.)
Another thing which was annoying was that characters would know things they could not possibly know. At one point, Raphah awakens in pitch darkness, and hears a banging which he knows to be the shutters being blown open and shut by the wind. Since he's from Ethiopia, it's difficult to see where he would have learned about shutters, still less how they sound. (For that matter, it's difficult to understand why, if the shutters are being blown open and closed, the room is still in pitch darkness.)
Word choices were often clumsy. At one point, Raphah smells brimstone and sulphur, as if they were not the same thing. Then too, Taylor consistently uses "keruvim" (more commonly known as cherubim) as a singular noun, when it is, in fact, plural. Also, although most readers have never been to Ethiopia, and it may seem a bit unfair to complain about his use of Ethiopian names and his descriptions of the country and its climate, it seems to me that when an author introduces an exotic element to a story, it's only common sense to go to the effort to get the details right.
Theologically, it's clear that Taylor is seeking to make several points, including the need for faithfulness and courage in serving God in the face of opposition. However, in several places, he succumbs to the temptation to use a compelling image which actually undermines the point he's trying to make. For instance, one of the points he seems to be trying to make is that you can't judge people on appearances, and yet readers, if not the characters, are consistently alerted to the presence of Jesus by the mention of His blue eyes. (Which is a bizarre notion common to a lot of Christian authors, and which seems to be based on Hollywood "Bible epics" of the 50s.)
On the one hand, I have never been one to believe in supporting inferior works, just because they are "Christian", as if being a Christian meant that there was some sort of virtue in putting up with second-rate goods just because they are "baptised." On the other hand, this book isn't actually all that far from being a good read. With a thorough editing, it would certainly satisfy me, at least as entertainment. Others, who do not have the same picky attitude I bring to my books, may well enjoy it the way it is. (November, 2004)
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