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Between the Shade and the Shadow by Coleman Alexander

Between the Shade and the Shadow by Coleman Alexander
4.5
Book Name: Between the Shade and the Shadow
Author: Coleman Alexander
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: April 6, 2018

Between the Shade and the Shadow has a haunting, fast paced narrative that kept me enchanted from beginning to end. A gripping coming-of-age story about a rebellious adolescent girl and her wolf companion, it’s Island of the Blue Dolphins meets The Golden Compass meets The Hunger Games, except in this case, the heroine isn’t human. Ahraia is an adolescent sprite.

In mythology and folk tales, sprites frequently appear as wild and sometimes malevolent forest-dwelling fairies. True to this idea, Ahraia’s people live in deep, dark forests populated by wild animals and demons. Extremely light sensitive, they sleep during the day, sheltering in canopied communities cultivated from ancient trees. Extremely secretive, they avoid contact with humans and elves, whom they call lightwalkers. Under pressure from human encroachment, the society has strict rules and harsh punishments; merely being seen by a human warrants a death sentence. In fact, any number of infractions can get a sprite sent to the isle of the Shad-Mon, a giant demon that likes to eat sprites head first.

But Ahraia is a born rebel, and she spends the novel breaking every rule of sprite society, getting away with it by the skin of her teeth. This is fairly typical of YA protagonists, and it can be as frustrating for the adult reader. We naturally sympathize with the adult figures in the book, figuring they have a reason for their rules. In Ahraia’s case, there is a reason, but it isn’t what the reader might think in the early pages. Discovering why Ahraia’s instincts lead her off the path laid out for her is one of the joys of this book.

Coleman Alexander spends the first couple of chapters setting up Ahraia’s world, but through action, not exposition. We meet Ahraia on the night she undergoes a rite of passage intended to mark her transition from spriteling, or child, to shade, or adolescent. The spriteling’s task is to go out in the woods and psychically bond with an animal, who becomes the new-made shade’s shadow. Failing to find a shadow is one of those deadly infractions that gets you sent to the Shad-Mon (yes, even for kids), so the pressure’s on. Finding one is life changing, though. Like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, bonded shadows become integral to their shades’ existence, as the pair share thoughts, emotions, and a spirit. On her night out, Ahraia bonds a wolf called Losna, the first shade in a generation to bind a creature so strong. In doing so, she draws other sprites’ attention and envy.

The real action of the novel begins a few years later on the night when Ahraia tries to spy on her older sister’s rite of passage from shade to sprite. The ritual in which a sprite transitions from adolescence to adulthood is utterly secret, although every shade knows it means separation from their shadow, because adult sprites don’t have shadows. Before Ahraia can find out how this is accomplished, her father catches her spying, and as punishment, he orders her take her younger siblings hunting and show them how to kill using sprite magic.

Sprites can enchant the wills of both plants and animals to make them do their bidding. Ahraia is particularly adept at this skill, but she doesn’t like to use it for hunting:

One night, she was going to have to hunt with bindings and tonight was as good as any to start.

Couldn’t you just let me do it? Losna thought. I’ll be careful.

No, Ahraia conveyed.

Losna’s low grumble turned to a disapproving growl. She knew the ruin that hunting with enchantments held for Ahraia. The problem wasn’t the hunt of course—it was the binding. The act of enchanting and then killing left Ahraia empty and maimed.

To force Ahraia to overcome her resistance to killing enchanted creatures, her elders have forbidden her from hunting with a bow or getting help from Losna. Yet, on the hunting excursion, she can’t make herself show her younger siblings how it’s done, and the excursion goes very wrong. By the end, two brothers have been murdered by a mysterious and terrifying entity, and Ahraia and her other siblings are seen by a young human woman, which marks them for death. The only way Ahraia can save them all is to enchant and kill the woman, even though she knows it will make her physically ill. Yet while Ahraia’s mind is linked with the woman’s, she learns that sprites attacked and killed the woman’s companions without provocation, and Ahraia decides to show mercy. Unfortunately, her father finds out, and her surviving brother takes the fall. He tells their father that the human saw him, but not Ahraia, condemning himself to becoming the Shad-Mon’s next midnight snack.

At this point, the complexity and tension only grow. The queen of the sprites, known as the Masai, arrives and says she wants Ahraia to come live with her, because as a wolf-binder, Ahraia may be the next Masai. The queen appears to be impressed with Ahraia’s abilities and seems sincere in her praise. Yet recent events have left Ahraia increasingly distrustful and isolated. When the Masai orders her to undergo the rite of passage by which shades become sprites, even though Ahraia is too young for the ritual, Ahraia suspects that her life and Losna’s are in jeopardy.

Ahraia’s thoughts and actions can seem a little YA-tropey as she exhibits a teen’s paranoia that all adults are out to get her. In fact, I sympathized with Ahraia’s elders, even when they were behaving harshly toward her, figuring their actions could be explained by the pressures they faced trying to save their declining community. Yet a lot of my assumptions about motivations and actions were wrong. All is not what it seems here, or what the reader may suspect it is, and the reader must discover alongside Ahraia what the situation really is, as she unravels the circumstances surrounding her brothers’ murders.

Alexander stages Ahraia’s adventure in one of the most intricately imagined settings I’ve ever read, which he calls “a corner of the Realmless” (Realmless is the name of this world). Rather than spoonfeed everything to us, he incorporates the worldbuilding into the action, expecting the reader to glean meaning from context, and he gives us a lot of vocabulary to learn. Along with different age groups, the reader has to master the sprites’ names for the sun (Dae-Mon), dagger/knife (drain), and various tasks, tools, and customs unique to sprite culture. Male adults are called wards, whereas sprite refers to female adults and the whole population (just as in human patriarchies, men may refer to male adults as well as the people as a whole). The integrated worldbuilding kept the pace moving at a fast clip, but it also left me confused at times. I was halfway through the book before I realized that sprite society is matriarchal; all the leaders are female and males are always subordinate. These challenges didn’t impair my enjoyment; in fact, they enhanced it. I liked becoming fluent in sprite society as I went along with the story—in the end it made the experience richer.

I do wish some pivotal backstory had been in the book, however. We start with Ahraia as a spriteling gaining her shadow and becoming a shade, but other important developments such as her being sickened by killing an enchanted animal, and her elders forbidding her from using a bow to hunt occur off-page. We’re told Ahraia and her older sister were close before her sister became a sprite, but this also occurs off-page. Ahraia is hurt by her sister’s new aloofness, but the changes in their relationship would have been more poignant—especially as Ahraia’s situation becomes increasingly dire—if we’d seen the before as well as the after.

It’s easy to overlook these flaws in light of the novel’s many strengths. Alexander paints an elegant picture of Ahraia’s darkly beautiful world while capturing action and emotions with vigorous prose. He skillfully pulls the reader into Ahraia’s head, essentially making you a co-shadow with Losna as the stakes rise ever higher and the bad continually gets worse. The narrative dug its nails into my attention, called to me while I was busy with other commitments, and enticed me away from other pleasures. In the backmatter, Alexander says he has many more stories to tell, mostly involving the supporting cast in Ahraia’s story. Whether the next book of the Realmless follows Ahraia or one of the other characters, I know I’ll relish it.

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2 Comments

  1. Sold, sold, sold and sold.
    Between the Shade and The Shadow sounds like a really good read. A little different than what I usually read, which is historical fantasy, but I’m eager to try new things and branch out a little this year.

    Thanks for the great review!

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