Variety is something I heartily approve of (which explains why I teach and am not working a nine-to-five job), and this is especially true with my reading. While it’s true I stick to a handful of very specific genres, I like to think that the genres I go for are extremely rich in variety despite working within certain bounds (or questioning them, as is often the case), and I am in the happy position of knowing I’ll never run out of new, shiny things to read.
This is why, although I’ve given up maintaining any kind of reading list (because lists have endings, and really, there is never going to be an end to the books I’ll read throughout my lifetime), I do try to mix things up a little so I don’t get genre fatigue. Say I just finished reading a non-fiction book; that means I will reach for a fantasy or at the very least an urban fantasy novel as opposed to another non-fiction book. This helps keep things fresh for me, and I rather like to think that the sudden shift in perspective (from sci-fi to fantasy to historical fiction, for instance) helps to produce perspectives I wouldn’t have had if I’d just read books from one genre one after the other.
This was why I’d decided to pick up Shadows Fall by Simon R. Green. The cover, featuring what I thought was a mechanical android of some sort, looked so sci-fi I thought it would be the perfect thing to read after coming off Kevin Hearne’s Hounded, which is urban fantasy. I had never heard of Simon R. Green, so I didn’t know what genre he operated in, but as usual I merely shrugged and dove right in.
Now I think I should have checked, because despite the distinctly sci-fi feel of the cover, Shadows Fall is actually another example of the urban fantasy genre. Despite finding this out right at the beginning of the book, though, I decided to just shrug it off and continue reading. After all, that android on the cover had me sufficiently intrigued to want to keep on reading, if only to find out what sort of connection it had to the story.
Shadows Fall, as it turns out, is not only the title of novel, but also of the town where the events of the story take place. Shadows Fall is the place where “legends go to die,” where characters from mythology, fiction, and even actual people, to a degree, go when they’ve faded and been forgotten by the world’s collective consciousness. The town itself has a life of its own, likely because of all the strange entities that inhabit it, and the ever-shifting nature of it is something the residents must cope with as a part of everyday life. Strange as Shadows Fall is, though, its residents are generally happy, for the most part – until a rash of murders breaks out in the town. And even more frightening, in a town where the dead come back to life, the victims pretty much stay dead.
Adding to this confusion is James Hart, a man whose family left Shadows Fall when he was ten years old, but who is now coming back after the death of his parents. His return, however, heralds a great shift in Shadows Fall, and these changes, tied in with the murders, leads up to an earth-shattering (or town-shattering, really) event, where both Heaven and Hell themselves get involved.
Initially, I was rather disappointed with the opening of the novel. I thought it was starting off too slow for my tastes, especially when I was hoping for something far more exciting than what I’d gotten at the beginning. The characters were very bland, and though I expected blandness from James Hart, I wasn’t expecting it from the town’s inhabitants themselves. Since Shadows Fall is supposed to be the place where legends go to die, I was hoping that I’d get a glimpse of the more colorful characters in all their glory. Still, I kept on reading because I’d had experience with this kind of book before: the kind of book that started out very slowly, but then built up to really, really interesting and fun events. I hoped that, if I kept going, I’d get some kind of payoff.
And to be fair, I did. By the midway point of the novel things started really picking up steam, specifically at the point when the Faerie and their spokesperson, Sean Morrison, are introduced. From that point the story picks up speed, until by the latter third it’s become a wild and frightening war being fought in the middle of the town itself – a war between Christian fanatics and all the denizens of Shadows Fall.
The inclusion of a militarized group of fanatic Christians was something I found intriguing. Given how this book first came out in 2005, when the events of 9/11 were still very fresh in the collective consciousness and the West was embroiled in a war in the Middle East, I rather liked the use of Christian terrorists, out to “purify” the town of Shadows Fall. It was a great reminder that, no matter how you slice it, fanaticism is still fanaticism, and there’s no getting around that. Even better, it is revealed that William Royce, the leader of these fanatic Christians, is actually taking orders from none other than Lucifer, head honcho of hell itself. Royce’s misplaced confidence in his ability to control Lucifer was a nicely-pointed barb in the direction of religious leaders – no matter their denomination – who claim to do “the work of God,” even though their actions are more like the work of the Devil. This idea – that Royce’s work is the work of an evil entity, as opposed to the work of God as he so often likes to claim – is emphasized by various characters constantly describing the sacked town as “hellish,” or simply calling it “hell.”
At this point, however, things started getting a little heavy-handed – so heavy-handed, in fact, that it was kind of hard to miss exactly what Green was trying to emphasize in this portion of the novel. His description of how the fanatics sacked the town, of how they acted towards the townsfolk, was gruesome – no surprise there – but there was something gratuitous about the whole thing. Now, the author attempting to express some “lesson” in their novel is nothing new; it’s just that I don’t particularly like it when the lesson is so obvious as it was in Shadows Fall. It’s like Green is trying to say “Fanaticism is bad!” and is doing so in as loud a voice as possible. The only problem, though, is that there really was no need to shout it from the rooftops; any reader would have figured that out from the get-go, no slaughtering of innocents necessary – or, all right, maybe with minimal slaughtering of innocents, just to emphasize how truly dreadful the whole thing is. But the rest of it was, I think, unnecessary.
I could, however, overlook that part, to a degree. There was a lot going on in this part of the book that I found absolutely heartwrenching – for instance, a scene where one of the fanatics turns to the side of the townsfolk when he meets Bruin Bear, one of his childhood heroes – but there was one scene in particular that got me all choked up and made the entire slog up until this point of the book absolutely worth it.
One of the charactes the reader meets early in the novel is Sean Morrison, described as some kind of musician and bard to the Faerie. In fact, he’s the Faerie’s contact with the rest of Shadow’s Fall, and it is Sean who reminds the Faerie of their ancient duty to protect the town in its time of need. As it turns out, though, Sean Morrison isn’t quite as ordinary as he seems. After all, it’s legends that go to Shadows Fall, and Sean is a legend himself. In one scene, the character Madeleine Ketch has just finished speaking with Sean, and she says that “Sean” isn’t his real name. The truth is that it isn’t. “Sean” Morrison is actually “Jim” Morrison, the legendary rock-and-roll figure from the sixties who died too young and too soon. And Sean – or Jim – plays a crucial role in what is, hands-down, the most wonderful, climactic scene in the entire book.
The fanatics and the Faerie – the latter now the major aggressive force on the side of Shadows Fall – have reached a stalemate, but hostilities are getting ready to gear up once more, and this time, only one side will be left standing. But out of nowhere, Sean appears…
…singing like an angel. Behind him walked a once-famous guitarist, adding his music to the song. And behind him, every singer and musician and rock-and-roller who’d ever died too young or been forgotten and ended up in Shadows Fall.
The text proceeds to describe these musical legends, and the reader can attempt to guess who they are. John Lennon is counted amongst them. Kurt Cobain is too. And so are Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury, and so many more – all of them forgotten, dead too soon, their potential cut short before they had the time to really allow the greatness of their talent to expand into the world. And it’s not just the rock-and-rollers – there’s quite a few who are referenced in the text who were part of other genres, but similarly died too soon or were forgotten too soon.
The text then proceeds to describe what can only be the most epic concert of all time:
They all came to Shadows Fall when the fans finally stopped believing in them, and found peace at last in a town where legends were two a penny. Now they all came together for one last concert, one last song, one last spit in the eye of fate.
[The music] filled the night, pushing back the dark, an army of song. And at their head, his voice soaring effortlessly above them all, Sean Morrison, whose name wasn’t Sean, who died too soon, while he still had songs left to sing.
That scene, that one scene was worth the whole slog from the beginning to get to that point. It choked me up, made the hairs on my arms stand on end, because it’s the perfect illustration of the power of art and creativity and music, of how immediately it speaks to the heart, and if one is unaffected by it, then one is no longer human at all.
Unfortunately, after that wonderful high point, things started to slide back down. The war was over, and I would have been content with it, to see how the town rebuilt itself, but there were still those murders that needed resolving. Unfortunately, the direction they take struck me as rather absurd, and the novel, which could have ended on a fantastic, resounding thunderclap (or maybe a rip-roaring guitar chord?) ended with something similar to a whimper – or someone clearing their throat, which is what literally happens at the end of the novel. And while I’m all for happy endings, the happy ending of this particular story just didn’t ring true for me at all. It screamed of wish fulfillment, as if the author was trying to apologize for all the losses earlier on in the story – especially those folks who died during the course of the battle – and in attempting to make everyone happy wound up creating an ending that rings entirely false.
Shadows Fall is confusing, to say the least. The buildup is really, really slow, but then suddenly it hits its stride and gets really, ridiculously epic, before winding down into something that the author probably thought would be epic, but just falls flat on its face – especially after that concert scene. It also doesn’t help that it gets kind of didactic in the middle of a battle, when subtlety would have gotten the point across better. I would read this just to get to that epic concert scene, but that’s the novel’s only redeeming factor. Otherwise, it’s a thoroughly mediocre read.