The Shadow Year
by Jeffry Ford
Tied for 2009 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
When I read Boy's Life I found that despite the fact that the concepts were overused the quality of writing made up for it. The Shadow Year is almost identical to Boy's Life except this time it lacks the interesting characterization and sense of wonder that elevated the previous World Fantasy Award winner above it's source.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. There was a small town in America where a boy on the verge of adolescence is experiencing a strange year. His family is going through hard times and he's observing the quirky neighbors around him. There's a supernaturally effective killer lurking somewhere in the town and he has knowledge of it that he is unable to share. So he along with some other children work quietly to unravel the mysteries of their town.
Well that was awfully generic so let me narrow this down more. There's a character with mental problems who is prone to strange pronouncements which appear nonsensical at first but prove to be accurate. A school yard bully whose menace is ignored by the faculty at the school is a reoccurring threat. There's a sadistic gym teacher who torments weaker children with dodgeball. And the protagonist has aspirations of being a writer.
I guess that hasn't really narrowed it down at all and that does sum up The Shadow Year well. There's no distinguishing marks, nothing that stands out. It's a bland, flavorless mush of a novel that succeeds only in being completely inoffensive. I finished reading it only a few days ago and I can barely remember it. If you were to ask me a year from now to describe the novel I'm reasonably sure I couldn't.
Part of that is the protagonist isn't interesting. He floats through the book never taking action on his own. Typically it is someone else who pulls him into the next zany scheme that will become a childhood anecdote and the rest of the time he's just running in fear from a not particularly threatening or ominous man. That's not the kind of behavior that results in a protagonist you can care about.
That's a major failing since The Shadow Year is, as I implied, just some childhood anecdotes strung together and they're not very interesting ones. It's almost all completely mundane average things. The experiences may be universal but if they're not told in an engrossing way then I could get the same experience sitting around the dinner table with family at Thanksgiving.
While I prefer to avoid spoilers I also have to add that Ford created one of the most abrupt and pointless denounments I've encountered outside of Neil Stephenson. What little life the plot has is undercut by a conclusion that just falls flat.
The Shadow Year has a plot that's identical to dozens of other books and while Ford doesn't manage to make an awful book he goes one worse and makes a boring one. It's competently done but when you're telling the same story as a dozen other people then competent doesn't cut it.