The first thing you should know about “Between the Shade and the Shadow” is that it is atmospheric AF. Really, the writing is prose filled, the land is cast in constant darkness where the light can kill our sprites, and there is a dark secret on what turns a shade into a sprite, and where the shade’s loyal animal companion—their shadow—goes when that transformation takes place. Few sprites have the mental capacity to bond themselves to powerful animals, most seem to have foxes, squirrels, or other small woodland creatures. Strong shades can bond to proud eagle owls, but only the strongest can bond to a wolf as our main character, Ahraia, has done. This marks her as someone with incredibly strong mental capacity for casting enchantments, who can create darkness—basically bending trees and making the forest into impenetrable fortresses of night—and eventually lead her people. But there is a price for that leadership that Ahraia is woefully ignorant of, and those who are power hungry around her are all too eager and willing to use Ahraia and the shadow, the wolf Losna, to achieve their own goals, even if that means they have to sacrifice Ahraia herself. This book is as thematically dark as it is literally dark at times, and it’s one of the more epic, high fantasies I’ve read in a hot minute.
You may think this book is good for YA fantasy readers given Ahraia’s age and it’s themes of “the chosen one” and other coming-of-age thropes, but I really wouldn’t recommend this for younger audiences. Not because it’s gruesome, though be wary if brief instances of violence against animals is triggering for you, but this book is hefty, and can be hard to follow. Alexander teases things throughout the course of this nearly 500 page novel. Leaning heavily into Ahraia’s own ignorance of her Shadow test, the reader doesn’t get to know what’s happening, because Ahraia doesn’t know what’s happening. It makes for a bit of an unreliable narrator, even though the book is told in third person. She doesn’t understand how human’s make fire, or even what a window is, Ahraia knows how to bind plants and make them do her bidding, so that’s the one thing that Ahraia, and therefore the reader, really understands. That and how she binds animals and the relationship between her shadow, which was a lot of fun to read about.
But the confusion and the mystery as to what was happening could make for a slow read, one where, if the writing wasn’t so lovely and the world so intriguing with how atmospheric it was, would be hard to get through. So if you pick this up, be sure to invest yourself in it, and then you won’t be disappointed. There are some things I wish were better explained that our main character should have known, and therefore imparted on the reader, however, and that’s how the hierarchy is set up in her world. Who can be a nit-ward or nitese, how does one become the Astra? I’m still largely confused by the hierarchy and how nit's are set up, even though some of that does get cleared up around the 80% mark of this book, especially when you realize that, in their ignorance, these sprites and shades were just pronouncing words wrong the whole time.
I really did enjoy this book though. It was deep and beautiful and I loved the idea that these evil sprites are not born, they are made. I loved how Ahraia rebelled against that, how she was stronger because she chose not to sacrifice the best part of herself. It’s a slow lesson, one the author teases throughout the novel, but its presentation through Ahraia and Losna was beautiful. The pacing of the book is steady, a little on the slow side, and the writing makes you really feel like you are just as much in the actual darkness with Ahraia, so everything is a touch unclear. It’s really well done, and is honestly not as confusing as that may sound. It’s all about that atmosphere, I’m telling you! I read this at night before bed and it was the perfect setting to lose myself in this chilling world, especially with the demons that live in the heart of the forest! Those monsters were written in such a haunting and creepy manner… I loved it! But I did want to walk away feeling like I really understood Ahraia’s world, and even with this book being a standalone novel, I still have lingering questions about the hierarchy of her nit, which is why I am giving this 4 stars. But, truly, if you love steady, really epically high fantasies that lean more on the prose and atmospheric side of writing, I really can’t recommend this book enough! And thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for an honest review.
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