Set in a dangerous near future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. It is a sweeping debut that illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.
One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.
Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.
Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.
As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.
Video Review: The Book of M
When I was in Grade 9, the book on the curriculum for my advanced-level English class was Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The book is about a young wizard who loses his shadow and takes off to fight it so that it doesn’t do irreplaceable harm as it gallops all around the world doing evil deeds. I’m going to spoil the ending of that book here but spoil it I must. Instead of a final confrontation with the shadow, the wizard winds up grafting the shadow back onto himself through magic. The reason I bring this up is because everyone in my class thought this ending was a huge cop-out, including me. The teacher desperately tried her best to show the class why it was the only possible ending, and it was a good one. Still, for a class weaned on Hollywood action films, the ending to A Wizard of Earthsea was not the preferred ending we would have liked to have seen. It needed more bang for the buck, a final showdown where the shadow was vanquished.
Funny that I mention A Wizard of Earthsea in reviewing The Book of M, because the two novels are joined at the hip in subject matter: losing shadows. In The Book of M, society has broken down entirely as people all around the globe start losing their shadows permanently. Thus, it is with no irony that I report that a major character of this work is named Ursula in honour of a particular author. (Ahem!) However, the story really centers on a married couple named Maxine and Orlando, who are holed up in a remote hotel in Virginia. Maxine suddenly loses her shadow at the outset of the novel, and this is a bad thing because those who lose their shadow go on to lose their entire memory — thus, the shadowed and the shadowless are in perpetual war with each other. So Max decides to leave the hotel so that she doesn’t hurt Ory, as he’s also known as, by the effects of losing the shadow. You see, the shadowless also have this curse of transmuting everyday ordinary objects and living things into weapons as they start to forget. Despite the dangers involved, Ory takes off after Max, but is headed in the opposite direction. It turns out it doesn’t matter too much because there is a mysterious figure in New Orleans, an amnesiac who lost his memories just before everyone else started losing their shadows, who is gathering things — people or other materials — for some special purpose. Like moths to a flame, the story eventually starts tugging the characters towards New Orleans.
That’s a lot to summarize, and I’m probably not doing the book much justice. The reason is because this is a deeply layered book. Once you’ve figured out what’s happening to the characters and what something might mean, another layer is revealed and more questions are asked than are answered. Those who love brain puzzles will find much enjoyment in The Book of M, which is impeccably well-written and is literary dystopian fiction in the vein of Station Eleven. Alas, the book eventually does not succeed in holding one’s interest because, at almost 500 pages, it is overlong and, by the mid-way point, things start getting sillier and sillier. Peng Shepherd, the book’s author (making her debut here), has a penchant for writing her characters into corners that are inescapable, meaning that they have to rely on magical powers that they don’t really know that they have to break free of their confines. There are plot twists that you don’t see coming, but they, too, may make your eyeballs roll. Elephants also play a large role in this book, and, when you find out why, you may groan in disbelief. Also, there’s a climax, but it feels too muted and the enemy too easy to fight off. It feels a bit like a riff off that other book I was just talking about.
Even though The Book of M never elevates itself as a good first novel by someone still figuring out how to write a novel, there are pluses with this work. The biggest is that the characters are delightfully multi-ethnic — Max and Ory are a racial intermarriage — and the LGBTQ community has a large role to play in the work. Most of these characters are three-dimensional, real people, and Shepherd has skillfully fleshed them out. Indeed, the characters may be themselves the biggest draw of the novel, because the settings — mostly in the United States — do not feel fully realized. It’s hard to imagine what the setting might be like if you haven’t been the particular places that the author has visited, which is peculiar for a book that is as long as this. There are trade-offs to be had, for sure.
All in all, I found The Book of M to have a crackling good start, a ponderous mid-section and an unintentionally hilarious finale. It is an average book, at best. Still, it’s worthy of a good beach read if you’re looking for one, as you don’t have to really think about it too much — except when it gets a little too outlandish for its premise. (The Statue of Liberty attacking New York City. Really?) It is an entertaining book. With a little pruning and a little more attention paid to the setting and the magical realist aspects of the premise, The Book of M would have been a stand-out read. What’s here is merely adequate. However, maybe I feel this way because I wasn’t enchanted with A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 14 years old. Maybe I didn’t like this book as much as I should have because I’m still bitter when it comes to books about shadows been ripped from one’s body. It’s a good concept. Now someone has to execute it so that the resolution to these stories have a bit more zip and pow to it, and not merely having the reader sigh at the finish, “Oh, come on! That’s it?”
Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M was published by William Morrow Books on June 5, 2018.
An Amazon Best Book of June 2018: What if your shadow inexplicably held memories? And what if, one day, shadows began to disappear? So begins Peng Shepherd’s fascinating debut novel, The Book of M, that explores memory, loss, and a very human apocalypse. One day in a busy Indian market a man’s shadow disappears, and with it his memories begin to unravel. Soon, the affliction spreads across the world, as more and more people slowly lose their memories—and with them their ability to reason. We see this catastrophe unfold through the eyes of Ory and his girlfriend, Max, who have gone into hiding in an abandoned hotel. When Max loses her shadow and disappears into the forest, Ory pursues her and heads south, hoping to find Max before she forgets him. What follows is a spellbinding narrative about love and loss in a nascent world that defies genre and expectations. —Alison Walker
“I was both disturbed and inspired by Max’s and Ory’s journey through apocalypses large and small. Peng Shepherd has written a prescient, dark fable for the now and for the soon-to-be. The Book of M is our beautiful nightmare shadow.” (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World)
“Sheperd’s debut is graceful and riveting, slowly peeling back layers of an intricately constructed and unsettling alternate future.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Eerie, dark, and compelling, this will not disappoint lovers of The Passage (2010) and Station Eleven (2014).” (Booklist)
“Brilliant debut… The Book of M is right up there with Station Eleven: achingly beautiful literary novels about a changed world.” (Refinery29.com)
“This is an apocalyptic thriller with heart… The Book of M is devastating and inventive as Shepherd examines the value of memory, packing in imaginative twists as she goes.” (USA Today)
“It is an incredible concept, and she is a brilliant, brilliant new fiction writer. This is someone who you’re eventually going to have on this couch—she’s that good.” (Brad Thor, The Today Show)
“A beautiful and haunting story about the power of memory and the necessity of human connection, this book is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece and the one dystopian novel you really need to read this year.” (Bustle)
“The Book of M is exciting, imaginative, unique, and beautiful. Shepherd proves herself not just a writer to watch, but a writer to treasure.” (Darin Strauss, bestselling author of Half a Life )
“Prepare to fall in love with your own shadow. And to lose sleep. Shepherd is urgently good, and has written one of those books that makes you look up at two in the morning, to a world that’s new, newly scary, and freshly appreciated: what all the great stories do.” (David Lipsky, New York Times bestselling author of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself and Absolutely American)
“A beautifully written existential apocalypse, following everyday people on a search for love, memory and meaning across the richly realized and frighteningly familiar ruins of America.” (Christopher Brown, author of Tropic of Kansas)
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About the Author
Peng was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet, and has lived in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, London, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York. Her first novel, THE BOOK OF M, won the 2019 Neukom Institute for Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction, and was chosen as a best book of the year by Amazon, Elle, Refinery29, and The Verge, as well as a best book of the summer by the Today Show and NPR On Point. She is a graduate of New York University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation’s emerging writers grant.
Find her at www.pengshepherd.com or on Twitter @pengshepherd.
Originally published: 5 June 2018
Genres: Science Fiction, Thriller, Suspense, Dystopian Fiction