When I first heard about Shadow Run my attention was caught by its definition as a cross between Dune and Firefly: as a huge fan of both I could not let this book pass me by, of course, and that kind of anticipation helped me overcome any misgivings due to the fact that this story seems mainly targeted toward a YA audience, something that usually does not sit well with me. But having had a few positive runs with this sub-genre in the recent past – most notably with the Illuminae Files for SF and the Great Library series for FY – I felt confident that I could overcome my bias one more time.
Shadow Run‘s main core concept is the existence of a substance – Shadow – that can be employed as an almost limitless source of energy: Shadow can be harvested in space near ice-bound Alaxak, a planet whose only resource comes from “fishing” the precious material, the other side of the coin being represented by the very nature of Shadow, that can poison the harvesters, driving them to madness and an early death. Qole Uvgamut is the 17 year old captain of the Kaitan Heritage, a “fishing” ship she inherited from her dead parents: Qole runs the Kaitan with her brother Arjan and a small crew composed by hacker Telu, strong-arm Eton and the mysterious, gender fluid Basra, who is something of a walking mystery. Her new recruit Nev, engaged as a cargo handler, is soon revealed as the heir of the noble Dracorte family, intent on proving his worth as a prince while finding a new, safer way of handling Shadow through the affinity shown by Qole, whose link with the substance seem to have gifted her with amazing powers.
Narrowly escaping the clutches of a rival noble family, Nev and the Kaitan‘s crew reach his home planet, where Qole is slated to become a partner in the research that will bring unlimited energy to the galaxy and a measure of wealth to Alaxak and its destitute and suffering inhabitants: the situation is soon revealed to be far less utopian than it appeared, and Qole and her crew will have to fight a battle on two fronts for their lives and freedom, while Nev will have to confront his life-long beliefs and take a stand, choosing the side he wants to be on.
As far as premises go, Shadow Run begins in a very intriguing way, first because it drops the reader in the middle of things and then proceeds to expand the focus in small increments, painting this world little by little without need for long exposition or tedious info-dumping. Moreover, the choice of working from a first-person perspective is given a good pace by alternating point of view chapters between Qole and Nev, which keeps things at a nice, almost compulsive speed. The crew of the Kaitan is an interesting mix, and even though they are painted in broad strokes and don’t get as much “screen time” as the two main characters, there is enough to give most of them enough substance to make them real and three-dimensional, leading the reader to care for them and desire to know more about their past and what makes them tick.
Shadow is also a fascinating element, a material moving in currents through space that somehow made me think about plankton banks in the oceans: the method employed to gather it, by using energy nets, reinforces the comparison to actual fishing and makes for a few interesting scenes, that coupled with the description of the Kaitan, an old, rundown ship lovingly maintained by ingenuity and a lot of love, helps to carry home the harsh, unforgiving background in which the Alaxans try to eke out a living. Last but not least there are several scenes and dialogues that stress how the galaxy’s powers that be exploit Alaxak’s resources without giving much back to the inhabitants, therefore creating a social commentary on the state of affairs in this time and place: again a comparison springs to mind with the mining of coal from the past, and with the health dangers incurred by the miners whose hard, dangerous labor never received enough compensation in correlation with the risks they took every day.
Unfortunately, such fascinating premises are somewhat marred by some narrative choices: of course there is a good measure of adventures, daring escapades, heart-stopping rescues and bloody battles, but they all appear as a mere side-dish for the romance between Qole and Nev. The young captain starts out as a strong character who has reached a maturity well beyond her years, a person who works for the small family she has built on the Kaitan, while very aware that her time is limited, that Shadow poisoning will soon come to claim her like it did her parents and older brother, and yet she keeps fighting because she refuses to give in and accept the inevitable defeat. There is much to be admired in Qole, and that’s the reason I felt betrayed when first she repeatedly needed to be saved by Nev, and then fell in love with him: what would be the reason to create such an independent, headstrong person, only to place her in a condition of physical and emotional weakness?
And this would not have been the worst “sin” of the story if, on arrival on Luvos – Nev’s home planet – she had not been confronted by Nev’s distastefully aristocratic family: a form of social distance had to be expected in consideration of the circumstances, but was it really necessary to make them so blatantly snobbish and arrogant? The scene where Qole is prepared for an evening’s event is totally over the top, and in my opinion entirely undermines everything that has been shown about her character until that moment. Sadly, it does not end here: the budding romance between the rugged captain and the young prince is subject to a further cold shower when Nev’s fiancée Ket makes her appearance and – of course! – she’s a shrewish, catty airhead bent on humiliating the new arrival.
These elements are sadly part and parcel of any trope-laden YA narrative, and from my point of view they impair any effort at creating convincing characterization and story-telling, because the risk of producing cookie-cutter narrative is always around the corner, and in this case this is what I believe happened, spoiling what so far had been an interesting and promising story that I might have rated higher. Missed opportunities are always the saddest, indeed…