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by GP Taylor

(Faber Children's Books, 14.99, 320 pages, hardcover, published 23 October 2003; ISBN: 0571221998.)

Shadowmancer--a dark tale of smuggling, cover scanwitchcraft and derring-do. Touted in some quarters as a Christian answer to Harry Potter or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, I came to GP Taylor's debut novel with quite a heavy burden of expectation. Its road to success comes with a suitably charming rags-to-riches story--apparently, Graham Taylor originally self-published the book from his petrol allowance and the money he made from selling his motorbike. It proved a big hit, was picked up by Faber and Faber, and the original editions now sell for thousands online. The reviews I'd read, however, ranged from ecstatic to scathing, so I read it with some trepidation as to whether it would be as good as promised in some quarters.

It's certainly an exciting yarn that rattles along at a good pace. The evil priest Obadiah Demurral is desperately seeking the Keruvim so as to use their awesome power to usurp none other than God, while the young hero Thomas is saved by Raphah, an agent of the forces of light. The coastal setting plus a cast including smugglers and creatures of folklore adds colour to the tale.

However, it rapidly descends into a lot of running around as various characters get captured, escape, and go gallivanting off in all directions after the Keruvim. It's entertaining and exciting runaround, but runaround nevertheless. The limited scope in time and place of the main action also contrast rather heavily with what is at stake, and Demurral seems rather too undistinguished for one who is trying to wrest control of all creation.

The writing style is something that has split reviewers rather, but there are good descriptions and enough nuggets of entertaining wordplay to keep me happy, such as the villain's evocative "He may throw stones, but he will find I can cast shadows".

It's also very blatantly Christian--much more so than, say, The Chronicles of Narnia, not having an otherworldly setting to hide behind. Now, I'm a Christian, so my reaction was along the lines of "Preach it, brother!". I enjoyed Pullman's books, which are excellent in many ways, but I strongly disagreed with his attacks on Christianity, or rather, his idea of Christianity or those things done in the name of Christianity that it suited him to attack. So I found it quite nice to be reading something I agreed with, but this book doesn't really raise big theological and philosophical questions and deal with them in a fictional way as Pullman does. Here, Christian beliefs are used as the background to the story, but they aren't really discussed, so people who disagree with the worldview that Taylor presents may find it rather unsatisfying.

The ending is arguably its weakest point--a strong final showdown could have given this book the lift it needed to make it truly memorable. However, the whole thing is rushed to a halt with indignant haste, going from a cop-out defeat to end of the book in a matter of sentences. Apparently, the hardback edition published in October has an extra chapter to finish it off. That it didn't have a satisfactory resolution in the first place is a major shortcoming.

So, a flawed but promising first story from Graham Taylor, showcasing an interesting mix of folklore, theology and high adventure that bodes well for the inevitable sequel, Wormwood, to be published early next year.

Review by Caleb Woodbridge.

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