Picking up the narrative from the end of The Dreamsnatcher (although it could equally be read as a stand-alone), The Shadow Keeper begins with another wildly atmospheric setting – a secret cave by the sea. Hiding from the evil Shadowmasks, far from the forest they love, Moll and her friends are seeking the amulet, keeper of Moll’s mother’s soul, in an attempt to fight the dark magic.
An adventure/fantasy novel, Abi Elphinstone’s writing continues to move at pace. With an almost visceral, physical quality, the characters move forwards on every page – the text is littered with action:
“Siddy held Moll fast and yanked on Jinx’s tethering rope. The cob backed up against the wall, narrowly avoiding an owl’s blades. Siddy struck his knife against another that came close; metal clanged and the impact of the collision was enough to send the owl swerving away.”
It’s an extremely visual text, with dense prose and vocabulary, and an intense quality that puts Abi in the realms of classic writing rather than the pared and stripped back prose that contemporary writers tend to favour.
Threads of bravery and determination run through the novel, both in the writing, which never holds back from dark disturbing imagery (owls with wingspans of “black blades…each edge serrated and sharp”) but also in the characters of the children who hold friendship and loyalty above all else – showing bravery in the face of extreme fear and danger.
One of the book’s most admirable qualities is the juxtaposition of the vulnerability of the children and the childishness of their emotion: “there was a mountain of hurt inside her”, as opposed to the frightening images of the dark magic. Main character 12-year-old Moll wears her heart on her sleeve and states her emotions plainly and simply:
“I’m angry.” Moll muttered, scuffing her boot against the floorboard.”
But it’s the darkness that pulls. From owls with blades grinding, to a girl with her tongue cut out, to walking with bare feet on shards of glass, the danger is everywhere, as the dark magic rises. In fact, the dominant theme of dark magic versus the children and their lighter magic is reminiscent of such ancient fights as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – ordinary children fighting an ancient fantastical evil with historical curses and messages from long ago.
Of course, the children in The Shadow Keeper aren’t quite as grounded in reality as Will in The Dark is Rising with his idyllic Christmas in the family home. Moll and her gypsies reside in a hidden cave, and rely on nature to help them hide, and heal and eat. The premise of the children’s gypsy background gives them a terrific freedom to adventure, but Elphinstone cleverly weaves in the vocabulary of a childhood set entirely in nature, from a daemon like wildcat companion in Gryff, to a pet crab, bowls of mussels for dinner, mealtimes round the fire, and healing flowers and herbs.
The characters have developed from book one, all three children protagonists are complex and feel very real, despite the simple vocabulary used to depict their emotions. They continue to develop throughout book two, so that the reader not only feels empathy with them, but really feels that they know them. It’s exactly the sort of story you can live within – complete escapism – about as far removed from urban London as you can get!
It’s also riddled with themes, in particular ‘seen and unseen’, ‘said and unsaid’, as well as bearing echoes and motifs from The Wild Swans so that you feel the magic being woven around you as you read.
The ending is uplifting, and yet shot through with further mystery, so that the reader is left raring for book three. For confident readers, aged 10+ years. You can buy it here (if you dare!)