No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Shadows Bite -- Stephen Dedman

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in March 2002.

Shadows Bite, the sequel to Dedman's 1999 novel The Art of Arrow Cutting, is a novel that tries to fuse dark fantasy and Oriental myth - not altogether successfully. It's an action-packed tale of Hollywood monsters, old-school nosferatu in the sewers and a form of vampirism that is transmitted in an almost homeopathic fashion. Throw in black (and white) magic, an assassin and the daughter of a powerful Yakuza boss, and stir vigorously until overload is achieved.

Photographer Michelangelo Magistrale - Mage to his friends and relations - is a charismatic young man who happens to be gifted with a broad array of superhero powers, most intriguing of which is an ability to heal himself and others simply by visualising the injury healing. Following the events of The Art of Arrow Cutting - in which he encountered his friend and ally, Takumo, and came into his powers - Mage is working at a clinic in Bangkok. He's an idealistic young man whose powers enable him to right some of the wrongs he sees all around him - as well as engaging in simple cosmetic surgery for the poor.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Takumo finds himself opposing a genuine, old-fashioned black magician. Solomon Tudor habitually wears a black kaftan, and relies on a bookful of demonic pacts to give him a guaranteed century of life. He cossets his son Malachi, now a sullen twenty-something, as insurance in case the demons ever come calling for his blood: that of his firstborn son should prove acceptable in lieu of his own.

Tudor's hat, were he to wear one, would be unequivocally black. He's a two-dimensional villain, as are assassin Krieg and Yakuza boss Tamenaga. Mage and Takumo, though both potentially interesting characters, lack depth. Dedman's prose is unexceptional, with occasional lapses of logic and grammar that should have been edited out before publication. (When a character, ablaze, teleports to the moon, it's the vacuum that extinguishes the flames: the ambient temperature has nothing to do with it). Pacy, action-packed scenes - several of which echo popular vampire films such as Near Dark - propel the morally simplistic plot and leave little time for reader or characters to reflect.

Shadows Bite would work better as a graphic novel - to such an extent that I wonder if that's how it was originally conceived. It's easy to imagine Tudor's trip to low Earth orbit as a full-page spread, or 6-foot black female lawyer Kelly's battle with a Goth vampire as a motion-blurred sequence of drawings. Perhaps that's tribute to the visual qualities of Dedman's writing: perhaps it's inherent in the black-and-white ethical spectrum of Shadows Bite.