The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough
Reading fiction is not the same as reading academic texts. A book designed to impart information need not require anything more than mere comprehension from the reader. Words are weighed for their meaning and, where relevant, that meaning is committed to memory. Fiction, on the other hand, requires a more holistic and aesthetic response from the reader. Through the activity of reading, we’re invited to enter the world of the author’s imagination. We walk through situations and meet characters in a our minds. Where the author is close to our own “wavelength”, we transcend in the individual words and embrace the “big picture”. But where the language and narrative structure fail to resonate and, in fact, represent a barrier to effective communication, we struggle to empathise with the characters and do not willingly suspend disbelief.
The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough (Ace, 2013) The Forgotten Gods 2 is significantly more effective than the first volume A Matter of Blood. The question I find myself asking is why I should feel this second book in the trilogy more satisfying. Both are essentially the same, being police procedurals in which the lead detective is increasingly involved in the investigation of the supernatural. In both books, said detective is framed for a murder he did not commit. Consequently, he finds himself alienated from the mainstream of his “world”, struggling against his own nature, denying rather than embracing what might be useful abilities. At a superficial level, the second book is replicating the first but with different crimes for the detective to investigate. Yet the second is better. . .
I think it’s a question of perspective. When the first book kicks off, it’s presenting as a near-future or alternate history novel. The establishing scenes focus on creating a picture of this different version of the world in which corruption has become more institutionalised and poverty more overt. In other words, it’s creating a milieu in which there can be both police investigation and a political commentary. So when the novel pivots into the supernatural, it’s redefining its parameters and expecting us to follow. Having reached the end of the second book, I can now offer the opinion that the world has been manipulated, encouraging it down the slippery slope into this desperate and somewhat dysfunctional state. Nothing in this trilogy happens by coincidence. There are plans in motion which manifest through crimes to be investigated, and political manoeuvring affecting governments and relationships between countries.
So coming back to the question of perspective, the first book keeps the reader somewhat off balance because we can’t be sure how the broader narrative is intended to be read. If this was purely a police procedural, we could watch over the detective’s shoulder as clues come into view and second-guess the whodunnit solution. If it was a political allegory, we could characterise the set-up as a right wing dystopia and wait for a left wing backlash. If it was a supernatural novel, we would be experiencing thrills and chills as the creepy, scary stuff oozes from the pages. But when the tone is very much a stoic policeman trying to make a difference despite his own slip into immorality (including drug abuse), we hesitate to find the nature of the crimes anything more than yet another Criminal Minds serial killer episode. Having resolved all that uncertainty by the end of the first book, we therefore start this book with a clear view of what game’s afoot. Indeed, to confirm the paradigm shift into a predominantly supernatural or possibly science fiction mould, we spend a significant amount of time with the supernatural beasties or aliens, watching their plotting and learning more about their agenda. Now that we’ve moved clearly into protagonist and antagonist mode, the scale of values can be adjusted and we can empathise with the relevant individuals. For the humans, it’s all about whether they can be more than mere pawns. For the “others”, we see the outline of their intentions and begin to assemble evidence to judge whether they are forces for good or evil.
As to the core crimes to be investigated this time around, we have terrorist bombings in London, Moscow and New York. In London, there are some suicides among the student population which seem to be connected. At a personal level, our detective is trying to discover what happened to his nephew who, apparently, was switched at birth. So some of the political context established in the first novel comes to the fore with an added international dimension. Some of the suicides are side effects of the supernatural activities or alien experiments. And the detective moves closer to discovering what happened to his nephew.
Put all this together and The Shadow of the Soul proves to be a gripping read with fascinating possibilities left at the end. I should note the irony that, under normal circumstances, it’s the truth that sets you free. In this book, it’s rather the other way round.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.