4 out of 4 stars
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The last ice age is ending, and trouble is brewing for the animals. It hasn’t rained in weeks, and a terrifying new species, the hairless, two-legged "sans-pelage", threatens the forest and every creature in it by starting fires that rage out of control in the unseasonably dry weather. Zak, a multilingual possum and poet, ventures away from his homeland in search of some way to save the forest from destruction by the sans-pelages. Outside of his protected glade, though, he finds the world to be a dangerous and confusing place. Alongside a wide cast of quirky, menacing, flippant, and intellectual beasts, Zak is forced to explore not only the landscape but also his inner self in order to save the world from the new and unprecedented threat.
Shadowshine, written by Johnny Armstrong, is best characterized as a prehistoric fairytale and is additionally described by the author as an “animal adventure”. It explores themes of ecology, balance, identity, and humankind’s place in the natural world through the medium of talking animals.
Despite the whimsical storytelling, the book is not aimed at children, as demonstrated by the usage of advanced vocabulary; for example, an angry tern who doesn't care for Zak's presence in his fishing hole is described as spewing "insolent avian invective" at him, and Zak’s favorite word, used often, is “incomprehensible”. The book also contains humor which children would likely miss; for instance, Zak, being diurnal while most possums are nocturnal, is nicknamed “Opposite Possum”, shortened to “O. Possum”, which would make an adult smile but would be lost on a child. Likewise, the text is peppered with philosophical discussions that would completely escape a young reader, such as a monologue by a skunk who explains the difference between "being lost" and "not knowing where you are" and how it is possible to be one, the other, or both at the same time. As I read, I was reminded of the works of Voltaire, whose sharp satire is always hidden beneath humorous tales told through exaggerated characters.
The book is well edited, and errors are infrequent and minor. There is some relatively mild profanity as well as infrequent but graphic violence and one oblique reference to sex. Overall, though, it is the mature ideas and vocabulary that limit the age of the audience. The book contains sporadic spiritual references but no outright religious ones, and so I cannot imagine any reader being offended on religious grounds.
Shadowshine earns a score of 4 out of 4 for its thought-provoking philosophizing swathed in imaginative, fanciful storytelling. It would most appeal to adults with a sense of whimsy and a love for the natural world.
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