Shadows of Ourselves by Apollo Blake
Published by: Self-published
Genre: urban fantasy/queer fiction
Order at: Amazon
Reviewed by: Edwin
What to Expect: Remarkably ambitious urban fantasy with fascinating world-building. A young writer brimming with ideas, though a few rough edges do show through.
Plot: Sky Davenport can tell when you’re lying. He can feel it.
His strange ability to feel untruths has left Sky callous and deeply guarded. Using his gift to root out liars for cash, he keeps himself and his alcoholic mother afloat, counting down the days until he has a way out. The arrival of a mysterious boy named Hunter changes everything. He endangers — and then saves — Sky’s life, and awakens new powers he didn’t know he possessed. And now he can’t get rid of them.
But the boys have bigger problems: a mystic bond has chained their powers together, and a dangerous enemy stalks them ruthlessly through the frozen streets of the city. If the madman gunning for Hunter’s life doesn’t kill them, then the hectic cocktail of paranormal beings living unseen among the mortal world just might. Not to mention their own inner demons — always hovering, ready to destroy the fragile trust growing between them.
For a chance at breaking the bond, Hunter and Sky will have to stick together — which may mean confronting their dangerous attraction… and awakening an ancient magik that could destroy all of the barriers Sky’s worked to build.
The only things that’s certain is this: if they fail, they die. No second chances.
I read this book after seeing a series of great quotes from it posted of Twitter. Lush, poetic turns of phrase that really made an impression. Some googling told me that Blake is only 21, and I was pleasantly surprised that such a young writer had such a remarkable command over language. Going from reading quotes to reading the whole of Shadows of Ourselves confirmed that Blake has an astonishing level of ambition and depth of thought for a young writer. They have a real talent for crafting words and worlds. As an example of this creativity, Sky can’t just tell if you’re lying, people lying around him hurts. The psychological effect of lying causing pain as compared to just being a human lie detector is so much more complex and interesting.
The setting of Shadows of Ourselves is the rather unlikely paranormal hotbed of Saint John, New Brunswick. At one level, it is the story of young people in a small city: they’re bored, they have little direction, and everyone knows everyone to an inconvenient degree. But underneath that we have the paranormal elements, and these are done in an interesting fashion. Blake’s paranormal world exists in parallel to the mainstream one: only some can see paranormal creatures, and very few ‘normal’ people know it exists. There are certain places where the veil is thin – major cities and, apparently, Saint John. The array of magical creatures in this world, from fairies to incubi to werewolves to vampires, is fantastic, not to mention queer as anything. Magic is handled in an interesting way, too. People have specific magical gifts which function quite a lot like superpowers do in superhero narratives (flying, telekinesis, throwing fire, and the like). Indeed, I get a hint of the early, non-crap seasons of Heroes.
The main plot driver, as noted in the blurb, is Sky meeting Hunter, discovering that the paranormal world is a thing, hooking up, and causing a super rare magic bond via said hookup. The rest of the plot consists of Sky learning more about this world (and as a newcomer to it, he’s very useful as a narrator in explaining it to us), and trying to break the bond. His motivations for wanting to do so are selfish, but entirely consistent with his character: he simply does not want to be tied to anyone, or rely on anyone other than himself. His life to this point has taught him that others can’t be trusted, so it’s quite rational that he doesn’t trust Hunter or their bond. His relationship with his mother, and Hunter’s with his father, are fraught. I sometimes think non-queer readers of queer fiction don’t realise how common this is for young LGBTQIA people, and I think it’s important that Blake positions these family relationships front and centre: this isn’t just a convenient excuse for a plot, it’s the reality for many in our community.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Hunter and Sky end up together at the end of the book. But the way this happens, and the relative lack of intensity in the relationship, is unusual for novels with romantic elements, and it really works for me. They’re not in love. Neither of them thinks they are. They’ve been hooking up for a couple of weeks, and have gone through life-and-death experiences together, and that’s brought them close together. They like each other, and they want to date. That’s it. And that’s entirely realistic for two guys in their late teens/early twenties. It wasn’t until I was preparing to write this review that I realised how uncommon this sort of ending is, or how much I wanted to see more of it.
This review has been almost wholly positive, because I really liked the book. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out some of the flaws. Shadows of Ourselves is a self-published book by a new writer, and sometimes both of these things show through. The book definitely needed another editing pass or two; notably it is fifty pages or so too long (the plot bogs down in the middle), and the generally excellent prose doesn’t always fit with Sky’s wry, sarcastic narration. The writing also occasionally trips over from appealingly lush to slightly overwritten. This said, I’d much rather see slight overreach and some rough edges from a young writer than bland competence. Blake is going somewhere interesting in their writing, and Sky and Hunter are going somewhere interesting in their relationship, and I’m keen to see where they go next.
What you might not like/doesn’t work for you: The book is a little too long, and a couple of unnecessary subplots drag down the momentum in the middle. If you like plain, clear prose, Blake’s lush, poetic syntax might not work for you.
What you will love: A young writer with a blazing imagination going all out. A mixture of very real familial rejection and magical adventure.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else?
Connect with Edwin on Twitter: @gaybookgeek