Janet Lorimer,
Master of Shadows
(Juno, 2007)

It is, in some ways, a contemporary murder-mystery. In others, it is a fairy tale as old as the hills.

Janet Lorimer's Master of Shadows is quickly recognizable as a modern reinvention of Beauty & the Beast. But this time, our beauty Ariel McPherson, is a directionless young adult -- she has a master's degree in liberal arts, which means her career goals are lagely undefined -- whose life has been blown apart by the abrupt disappearance of her father, the discovery of his gambling addiction and debts, and her mother's emotional collapse in the aftermath. Left broke by the ordeal, Ariel and her mother move to their last remaining property, a small cottage in a remote holiday village.

It's there, during a misguided stroll in the woods late one night, that Ariel learns that the local stories about a moon-ruled beast are not just some quaint rural color for the tourists. But her fear of the unknown may just pale in comparison to her fear of the past, which is about to come crashing down around her.

Master of Shadows is a lyrical novel that draws heavily on its folkloric roots. Consequently, it never feels entirely real. Even the places are vaguely identified; the action takes place in the village, the city or the forest, none of which are ever named or described in much detail. Lorimer's adjectives are reserved for the hidden estate in the forest, its mysterious owner and his quirky staff.

There are hints of magic as the story unfolds, but nothing that cannot be explained away in purely rational terms.

However, I did feel a little let down by the end of the tale. Not only is it a little too fairy-tale neat in its conclusions, but Lorimer saves the final chapter for exposition that drags on far too long. All secrets will be revealed, but the closing narrative is fairly dry and comes only after all action has been resolved. She should have saved some final plot twist or resolution for the end of the book.

Best known as a children's author, Lorimer has made a good first step into a more adult field. I look forward to her next novel, and hope she irons out a few stylistic glitches in the meantime.

review by
Tom Knapp

5 January 2008

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