I think I’ll start with the tl;dr on this book: much like a book called The Luminous Dead that I read last year, which ended up on my best-of-year list at the end of the year despite having a fair number of flaws, my ultimate feelings about Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M are going to depend on how well the book continues to live in my head now that I’ve finished it. I read the book in a day, which is always a good sign– anything I’m reluctant to put down is usually going to be something I’m going to recommend to people– but … there are some issues here, y’all, and it remains to be seen whether three months from now I remember the cool stuff or I remember the issues.
Also, it might not have been the greatest decision I’ve ever made to read a book about the end of the world while I’m literally stuck in my house during a pandemic. I’ve made better choices, is what I’m saying. And depending on your own situation right now even if you do decide to read this you might reasonably decide to hold off for a little bit. It’s OK, the book will still be there.
(Takes a moment to cough himself into near-unconsciousness)
So the premise of this book: human beings, through means never particularly dwelled upon or explored, have begun losing their shadows. In and of itself, losing one’s shadow is disconcerting but not especially threatening; however, it turns out that losing your shadow is also a precursor to losing your memory, which is a bit more of a problem. Furthermore, it turns out that occasionally as people’s memories disappear and they begin misremembering things, every so often the entire world just sorta reshapes itself to fit what they think they remember instead of the way things used to be, leading to all sorts of crazy havoc, from houses suddenly losing their doors and windows to entire population centers disappearing overnight. The book follows four main characters: a married couple, one of whose shadows disappears at the beginning of the book, an Iranian Olympic-level archer (roll with it,) and a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury just before the events of the book get rolling and suffers from amnesia, but not the same way everyone else does.
There’s a lot going on.
Here’s the good stuff: Peng Shepherd does good words. The writing is compelling throughout and there’s a palpable sense of dread and horror that permeates the entire book; it genuinely was difficult to put down, and again: it’s nearly 500 pages long and I finished the thing in a day. And, like, okay, I just dealt with “the good stuff” in two sentences, but this isn’t nothing, right? It’s a compelling-ass read. I barely stopped reading it once I stopped. That’s worth a recommend. Oh, and there’s a thing at the end that will knock you out of your seat if you’re not prepared for it. I had an inkling, but the book ends well.
That said, uh, there are some issues with … let’s say worldbuilding and narrative consistency, and the occasional real-world logic problem? And I’ll admit part of this may be me missing stuff here and there, as Shepherd can tend toward the elliptical every once in a while. But there are a fair number of places where there don’t seem to be any rules about how or why this whole memory-loss thing is happening other than pure narrative convenience, and the “sometimes folks misremember things and they become real” bit sounds cool but in practice it literally leads to the Statue of Liberty quietly coming to life and then, less quietly, knocking over skyscrapers with that book she’s holding. And that’s not even a main plot point. It’s literally noted that it’s happening and then the characters move on from it. It’s never quite clear what ultimately happens to the shadowless; sometimes they’re presented as basically becoming so nonfunctional that they forget to eat or breathe and then they die, and other times there are huge bands of them just sort of swarming around out there causing trouble, which sort of presumes some persistence of memory somehow.
Also, there are a whole lot of times where people are able to instantly identify others as shadowed or shadowless, at distance, and I’m pretty sure at least once at night. I could lose my shadow right now and I don’t know that I would notice right away; I don’t know how you figure out that someone fifty feet away has theirs or not. A character is able to fly from Tehran to some airport near Boston after all the shit happens, and explains that the plane is able to land because everyone in the (not Boston, but nearby) place it landed was gone.
And … uh. That’s not how planes work, I don’t think? Or at least that’s not how commercial air flight works?
There’s a bit where one guy gets serious third-degree burns to both his hands, necessitating one of his fingers being amputated later, and then I’m pretty sure that Shepherd herself just forgot about it. This is one of those bits where it’s possible that I missed something, I suppose; maybe the magic ex machina fixed him somewhere, but I don’t think so. His hands are burned to shit and then they … aren’t.
So: two sentences of “good stuff” and then several paragraphs of complaining, but I still enjoyed the book and I can still very much imagine a world where I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shepherd in the future; I don’t know if there’s a sequel to this in the cards (I don’t think it needs one, but it’s not unimaginable) but one way or another I’m definitely buying her next book. If you think your suspension of disbelief can handle a bit of a workout, I’d think about giving this a read.