Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski

Living overseas overtimes feels like living in an alternate world. I slip into a Chinese world where I go from having 3 degrees to being illiterate; unable to read street signs, unable to understand conversations, unable to make friendships because of communication barriers, and being dependent on others to help with all of the above. Students laugh at my horrible pronunciation of the few meager Chinese words I do know. Not that I blame them. I can't get the tones right and while the students are not malicious, I do get tired of tripping over my tongue as it stubbornly refuses to form Mandarin words. When I "portal" back to home to the USA, I tend to be overly friendly greeting people I pass on the street, yapping to the checkout people at Target or any other poor stranger who gets sucked into my vortex. When 16-year-old Darcy Jones gets dragged into an alternate world in Chicago and finds out she's not human, I couldn't help but compare her loneliness and confusion to being an "alien" in another country. 

Darcy is a foster child abandoned at the age of 5 after the Great Chicago fire. She can't remember her past and jumps from home to home because odd things seem to happen wherever she lives. When a mysterious new boy, Conn, starts at her high school she is attracted to him as they work together on an English project about T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Strange powers start to manifest in her that she doesn't understand, but Conn does. He kidnaps her and drags her into an alternate world where she discovers she isn't human but a Shade. In Conn's world her race is despised and hunted with a devout fear that comes from a history of terrorist activities from Shades. In response to the terrorist activities, humans use torture on Shades that sometimes results in death.

This can be a discussion point for whether or not torture is ever justified by governments. With the movie, "Zero Dark Thirty," and the "War on Terror," the question of how governments can best fight terrorism and still represent democratic values is controversial, to say the least. While torture is used in many regimes no one admits this taboo. This message is one of the many layers in this book that can be explored, but doesn't interfere with the story or become didactic. Details of torture methods enacted on Shades is told secondhand and not described in gory details. The content of this novel makes it more appropriate for students in middle school and up.

I admire how Rutkoski crafts her story creating complex characters who struggle with self-identity, friendships, and ethics. For instance, the weaving of Eliot's poem with Darcy's narrative adds more depth and introspection in understanding the world around her. The alternate world where the author takes famous artists with new works or Jane Austen writing a book that doesn't exist on Earth but does in the alternate world called "Alter" are other creative twists that pay homage to a rich artistic and literary history that evolves even today in cultures all over the world. This symbolism of writing as an act of storytelling, making up imaginative worlds, and creating something brand new adds to the novel's rich layers.

The secondary characters are a hoot with distinct voices and a confidence that comes from consciously choosing to not be a part of the popular group. They come across as a bunch of geniuses who see right through cliques and don't need them for security or friendships. They are protective and loyal to Darcy and add great comic relief. The ending with the popular girl jumping ship from her clique as a result of working on a play with Raphael suggests that the odd group out can influence those around them or the popular girl is just growing up and maturing.

The plot has the secondary characters entering the alternate world and looking for Darcy and while it is a bit of a stretch I welcomed them back in the storyline with their wit and humor. The author does give a plausible reason for them getting past the guards but I did find it unbelievable that they would find a job and miss weeks of school forsaking family in search of a friend. The resolution wraps up a bit quickly; I would have liked Conn's point of view and confrontation with his enemies in a final scene. The world of Shades could have been defined a bit more as well. While the Interdimensional Bureau of Investigation, or IBI, that protects the borders between both worlds is clearly crafted, I wanted more regarding the factions between members of the Shade Society of violent versus passive members. 

The romantic triangle, prejudices, and terrorist angles add for plenty of tension making this a page turner. Action steamrolls from the first sentence, "Knowing what I know now, I'd say my foster mother had her reasons for throwing a kitchen knife at me." Darcy needs to figure out who she can trust and while she hates Conn at first she realizes she needs his help to get out of captivity. He struggles with his decision to follow orders and is baffled by Darcy who does not fit the profile of a Shade. By meeting her, he questions his career and perception of seeing Shades as inhuman. Tolerance is a timeless message and Rutkoski does a great job getting the reader to think more about the human condition in social, cultural, and personal ways. Perhaps Rutkoski can work some magic and teach me how to speak Mandarin. Sigh.

Young Adult
5 Smileys

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