THE SHADOW ORDER

BY REBECCA F. JOHN

An Adventure Book Review by Erin the Literary Cat ©

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Hello, and welcome to my weekly Read & Review featuring Adventures in Middle-Grade Fiction! 

But first, our whimsical news update on the antics going on in our village of Upper Much-Mousing (UMM). I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Following on from last week’s news that the local flock of sheep had been having full trims and free blue and pale red rinses, curtesy of Mrs Gauze of ‘Clips & Snips Hairdressing’, it seems they have been attracting a lot of attention from passing foreign tourists.

It all started when the flock, an even split of white, red, and blue were seen to be lying down in their field in the form of the French flag. The French Ambassador was informed, and keen to repatriate this new enclave of patriots, he dispatched a fleet of Citreon 2CV and free passports to Upper Much-Mousing.

However, by the time they all arrived the sheep had morphed into the flags of the Netherlands and then Luxemburg. Worryingly, come sunset, the sheep looked as though they were lining up for the Russian Federation flag. With pop-up embasies springing up like weeds all over the field, Mrs H was sure we’d need the UN Peacekeepers by dawn. There was even a call from the White House offering the beleagured farmer, Mr Clarksin, an aid package, unspecified military assistance, and advice about independence.

The message from the Britsh Farming Minister, Mrs Heard (former Minister for Health, Education, Economic Recovery, Energy, and the Armed Forces) was delayed due to the delivery pigeon stopping on route to have a bath. The rather smudged message read: Sorry, tied up …….. …….. party bus……. PM will visit troops in morning.

Once the panic had subsided, all eyes turned to the skies, then towards the hedges and finally scanned the flock. Would US Navy Seals and the SAS be infiltrating the sheep? Would UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, soon be giving rousing speeches to a bemused gathering of sheep believing them to be undercover special forces? And of greater importance to the villagers, will Mrs Singh, proprietor of Singh’s World Food Emporium, be able to keep up with their takeaway orders?

Answers to all these points, well, some – possibly none, will be following next week!

And now . . . .

Lets get the show on the road with my review of a wonderful new adventure called ‘THE SHADOW ORDER’.

THE SHADOW ORDER. by REBECCA F. JOHN

Cover art by:  Anne Glenn

Published by:  FIREFLY PRESS

Publication date:  15 September 2022

Paperback ISBN:  978 183 994 0958

Cover price for Paperback £7.99,

Kindle available: Yes

Pages:  288.

Age range: Middle Grade (9-12 AND upwards)

Any interesting animals? Yes, mantises, deer, and two huge and terrifying wolves!

SPOILER ALERT

Yes, some spoilers as to plot direction, events and characters. 

Thank you to… 

We are exceedingly grateful to Karen, Firefly Press & Net Galley for the privilege of getting to Read & Review this book before publication. 

As ever, our views are our own, and we only share reviews of books we like and feel our readers deserve to know about and that we hope they will enjoy. 

The plot

The story opens in the city of Copperwell, in the Britannic Isles. Powered by manual labour, horses, steam and clockwork, it is a world that could be our own one hundred and fifty years ago. 

Here we find three longtime friends who share mischief and adventure. Effie Hart, Betsy Blue and Teddy James were drawn together by one incident years earlier. Suffice it to say, that made them strong. Effie is a skilled double bass player from a wealthy family. While her parents wish her to go to Royal Academy, she would much rather continue to play jazz in backstreet venues as part of a lauded masked quartet. Teddy works offloading the barges of goods destined for the city folk of Copperwell but longs to be a great explorer and seek out the Aur, a fabled golden horse. Betsy works and lives over a laundry. Without her parents, she longs to learn more about her past and what the future holds.

The city of Copperwell sits surrounded by a canal, over which nobody is allowed to pass. The city has been under a curfew for the past year. It is called the ‘Shadow Order’. Except for the feared mounted constabulary, nobody is allowed out during the day. It is an offence punishable by a life sentence in a dark, dank gaol. Or worse. 

Why? It is all because the shadows of the residents started to do their own thing. No longer did they just mirror the individual. They show what the individual feels like within at any given moment: big, brave, jolly, cowering. They seem to have a life of their own. This became known as ‘The Shift’. It was forbidden to look upon these shadows for fear of what they may be and do. The restrictions placed on the populace were all for their own good, or so the Prime Minister and the Unified Government said. But a year passed, the order stayed in place, and the city folk no longer questioned the removal of their liberty and human rights. 

But other things were happening. It became mandatory to maintain musical weather pipes on buildings that drain the rain into the sewers in the streets. The pipes play notes as the elements blow across their lengths. Failure to keep them playing means a hefty fine that few can afford. 

On the anniversary of the Shadow Order, the three, led by Betsy, dare to sit on the castle-like roof of Copperwells observatory. From here, they will watch the sun rise for the first time in a year. Whilst there, something strange happens: mantises fall from the sky like petals. Brought on a peculiar wind from their native land far to the east, they soon wither and die in the cold Copperwell night. Betsy saves one; shortly after that, they hear a woman’s voice. 

Old and poorly dressed, she stands in the daylight, and shouts. Her shadow is quite different, it looks strong and defiant, and is certainly differently clad. The constabulary, mounted on huge black shire horses, arrive and advance on the lady. She claims that the government has lied to them, caused the shift in the shadows and is manipulating the people of Copperwell, keeping the truth and the money from the downtrodden people. She continues to shout and proclaims that she can prove it all. Catching the sight of the children on the roof but not giving them away, she bellows with all her might that they must “FIND THE ORRERY! FIND—” before she can continue the now dismounted constabulary, bludgeon her to the ground and haul her away.  

Betsy’s meagre room over the laundry has a small orrery that had been left by a prior lodger. They soon realise that there is an orrery within the observatory. It is a mechanical depiction of the sun with eight planets that revolve around it in their respective orbits. How it works, or it’s part in the lies of the government, they do not know. But it becomes clear to Betsy that they need to break in to see and study it. But to study it, they need to steal it first.

The following week sees the arrival of unusual snowfalls and creatures best suited to arctic regions. Is this what the orrery is doing; is it changing the seasons and time itself? Determined to get to the bottom of things, they set out to take the orrery from under the noses of the constabulary.

From here on, it is fair to say that things take off in ways the three do not expect. The plot takes our three into highly treacherous waters, where they face the constabulary and risk the lives of loved ones. Friends will be made, and friends lost. Inner selves brought to the fore, and life-changing deeds done. 

So, what did we think?

Gosh, this was quite a ride. As rich in description as the best Christmas puddings are fruit, this is a sweet morsel that cannot be rushed yet demands to be read. The story is told in the third person omniscient. It has the definite air of a much bolder story style– Arthurian or Tolkein. It is a style that threw me till I got the gist, and then like a thick fur coat wrapped up and kept me literarily warm.

I have not read any of Rebecca’s adult literature. Still, I can understand why she was, amongst other things, a Costa Award nominee. This is her first venture into middle-grade writing. It is, in equal measure, impressive, rich, characterful, foreboding and heartening. Copperwell is a place crafted so that it could easily be two hundred years ago or a parallel future. There are definite parallels to the actions of governments in our own world on the environment and the creatures and peoples they are supposed to serve and protect. 

The middle of a heatwave probably isn’t the best time to start an intense and enveloping book. Initially, I really wasn’t sure what I had here. By the end, however, I was sad to say goodbye to Copperwell and the assembled characters. I really do want another adventure to be born out of the ashes of this; there certainly is scope for it. As I said earlier, it has the feel of an epic in the making. The social, political and moral issues raised will undoubtedly provide great talking points for teachers and readers of all ages. 

So . . . . 

Crunch time. 

Top marks for a story that ably knits together so many fantastic ideas and characters. For me, it is undoubtedly richer and more significant than the cover may suggest. Worthy of a broad age range audience and even a television drama. A must-buy, and one I would have been pleased to have bought for myself. 

Want to buy a copy?

REBECCA F. JOHN’s WEB page can be found HERE. OR Type https://www.rebeccafjohn.com

FIREFLY PRESS’s web page can be found HERE.  OR type https://fireflypress.co.uk/

ANNE GLENN’S web page can be found HERE. or type https://www.anneglenndesign.co.uk/

That’s it for this review. So all that remains is for me to leave you with a picture of me giving the “I’m NOT reviewing another book until I get something extra for supper” look.

©Copyright Erin the Cat Princess.

Till laters!

ERin