Shadow Town is Richard Lambert’s first book for children and follows his widely acclaimed YA novel, Wolf Road which was this week nominated for the Carnegie Medal. This new compelling fantasy adventure combines a coming of age story and an epic quest, big themes and dark moments with friendship and family, all wrapped up in a story that ripples with tension until the very last page.
The mesmerising opening pages introducing the ‘shadow’ have a disturbing tone and it is perhaps a surprise to the reader to find themselves in a suburban family home as the story opens. Toby is a quiet boy, a little awkward socially and struggling to make friends. He always gets things slightly wrong and is desperate to fit in with his classmates. His family situation adds to his feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness. His distant father, working as a speech writer for the government, is obsessed with his novel which is not going well and, selfish and grumpy, he dismisses Toby as ‘stupid.’ His climate activist mother is loving but distracted by her environmental causes. Toby’s only friends are his parents’ kind lodger and her pet cat, Alfred and within a few chapters probably the reader too as Toby comes to life as a real person on the page.
The mysterious shadow appears gradually in both Toby’s dreams and in his garden and this unsettles him. However when he and Alfred are drawn in to an alternative world it is still shocking and sudden for both Toby and the reader. There is no friendly faun and fireside tea in this new world, instead there is a fire sweeping through a forest, a malevolent darkness and Toby is a witness to a brutal murder. Richard Lambert has created a world both vivid and cruel. A harsh Regent rules a land that is swept by fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis and fear results in many obeying him.
Toby meets Tamurlaine, a mysterious and mercurial girl, sometimes kindly helping Toby and then on occasions switching to bitter and angry behaviour. She, like Toby, is on a journey of self discovery and when her past is uncovered she must make difficult choices. As Toby and Tamurlaine travel through the land of Balthasar, also the name of the fantasy world in Toby’s father’s novel, they both feel overwhelmed by their family destiny. They wonder if they can forge their own paths and make right things that have gone wrong. Toby’s companion Alfred the cat is an ever present reminder of home and Toby fears that he may never find his way back there.
This story could be seen as an allegory of Toby’s life and also perhaps a political allegory. Toby is a young boy lost in every meaning of the word, far from home and unsure of his future. Shadow Town asks questions about how much of life is mapped out for us and how much is personal choice. The Dreamers of Balthasar are children and young people whose dreams are ill used, their imaginations focused not on being creative and productive but on control and damage. The natural disasters causing fear in Balthasar could be seen as a mirror to our own world under threat from climate change. The many different themes and ideas included in this book make it one that prompts further thought and discussion.
A stunning start to a new series for readers aged 11+ Shadow Town was published on 21st October by Everything With Words and can be purchased at all good independent bookshops or online at Bookshop.org. I should like to thank Fritha Lindqvist and the publishers for my review copy.