The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

A dystopian pandemic novel with a bit of a twist.

The Book of M is primarily the story of Max and Ory: a couple living in an abandoned hotel following the strangest outbreak you’re ever likely to read about: a few years earlier, people across the world began losing their shadows.

Yup, you heard right.

Folk were going about their business, then looking down and discovering that their shadows had disappeared. The world’s fascination with this phenomenon soon turned to horror when people realised that shadows were somehow tied to memory: once your shadow vanished, your memories began to fade, along with your ability to make new ones.

Oh, but it gets worse: the people without shadows became wandering zombies with terrifying reality-bending powers.

To escape from the global chaos, Ory and Max hide away in the mountains, surviving on trapped animals and the dwindling supplies in the hotel stores. But inevitably, the pandemic reaches them: Max’s shadow vanishes, and before she develops the magical powers that could harm her husband, she leaves their mountain home while Ory is out hunting.

And when a heartbroken Ory returns to find her gone, he gathers a few supplies and sets out to find her …

M’kay, so the premise is an odd one; I wasn’t sure it was going to work, and to be honest, I’m not sure I was completely sold. I was definitely on board with the idea of my memories being tied to my shadow (they have to be stored somewhere, right?), but the shadowless gaining the power to give deer wings instead of ears, or make whole cities vanish into thin air – I struggled with that. I know it’s a magical realism sort of thing, but I couldn’t quite make the connection between this and the loss of the shadows/memories.

Aside from that, it’s an outstanding book. We have a wealth of characters and back stories that do a grand job of bringing the whole thing to life. The plot is engaging, and though it appears slow in places, for most of the book, it clips along at a nice even pace with a couple of neat twists along the way. I’m pleased to say that ending caught me by surprise, but not in a way that made me think I’d been tricked. Sometimes a plot twist is so violent, the whole story breaks; not here.

The prose … Mmmm. The prose I like, though in places I thought it was trying a little too hard to establish itself as literary fiction, and that made the book a bit longer than it should’ve been in my opinion. Again, this is a very minor quibble that didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book all that much.

Here’s what I did find odd though; of all the end-of-the-world novels I’ve read over the years, this is the scenario that is the least likely to happen, yet it was also the book that worried me the most about then eventual demise of humanity. I think it’s because Shepherd brings everything closer to home. We’re looking at the love between two imperfect people, and a battle to be reunited when pitted against other imperfect people who are just as frightened and fighting just as hard to survive, as long as they can, in a world they no longer understand. Forget about the magical realism for a moment; the real strength of this book is its humanity.

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