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Shadow Matter by S.W. Mayse

Reviewed by Robert Runté

Shadow Matter is a space opera, a spy novel, a romance, and a CanLit offering all rolled into one. It mostly works.

The setting is a post-earth universe complete with space elevators, faster-than-light drives, genetic modification, mercenary armies, germ warfare, psychotic AIs, and hints of mysterious aliens. Three rival polities, roughly reflecting the two distinct waves of migration from lost earth, are dangerously out of balance following the loss of our heroine's world. The individual SF tropes may be familiar, but Mayse blends all the moving parts into a consistent and immersive whole.

One way Mayse ensures the experience is immersive is that the characters never question the taken-for-granted universe through which they move. Mayse successfully resists the temptation (to which many other SF authors succumb) to over-explain how things work or how they came to be. Sentient trees? Sure. Manimals and chimeria? Nothing to see here. Aside from some speculation on the current, unsettled political situation, things are just the way they are…and the reader is left to decode Mayse's neologisms for 28th century phenomenon from context. (A glossary is helpfully provided at the end of the book.)

The spy novel concerns a missing memory bead with vital information that our heroine may or may not have. The spy novel kept me guessing, partly because no one knows exactly what the information is, who has it, or if it even still exists. Is it the record of the last moments on a now abandoned base? Video of first contact with something from The Deep Outside? Proof of an atrocity that could bring down the occupation? All our heroine knows is she has to get the information to high command before the war is lost, and she's charged with desertion.

I confess that I found the novel's opening confusing, largely because our protagonist, Seren Qasri, is herself confused about where she is and what's going on—her memory has been partially erased, and she has been cut off from recent developments. So, some of the action in the opening does not make a lot of sense at first because…that's not what's actually happening. (I tell you this at the risk of violating my 'no spoiler' policy because you need to make it past the opening to get to the really exceptional bits.)

Which is not to suggest the story becomes less confusing. The novel has a cast of thousands. Okay, it's actually less than 50, but the story alternates between first and last names; a lot of the names are too close to always keep straight (Rav vs Radko vs Renat vs Rethel vs Rozenn vs Rivera); and, as spies, they keep changing their identities. Mind you, I really liked the concept of using genetic modification to change not just one's superficial looks, but one's actual body to become unrecognizable. Rather, ups the ante on any spy subplot.

At first glance, the romance is a standard, Harlequin-style arc: girl-meets-boy, girl-hates-boy, girl-discovers-she-loves-boy. There's an innovative-twist in there I hadn't seen coming, though, that greatly elevates that portion of the storyline as it's resolved.

The retelling of the Orpheus mythos completely escaped me until I was reminded by the author's Afterword. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice may have been Mayse's initial inspiration, but the book doesn't closely follow the original and a knowledge of Greek legend is not required.

The back cover reference to Orpheus does, however, serve to alert potential readers that this is serious speculative fiction, not escapism. As with much Canadian literature, there is a definite dark undertone here. Seren's idealism and optimism is constantly contrasted with the underlying cruelty and narcissism of the civilization. Seren's backstory as an up-and-coming film-maker, before being drafted into the war, allows Mayse to have us view everything from a videographer's perspective. Seren thinks in images and story. As Seren cobbles together footage for her hypothetical documentary on the occupation, Mayse is able to draw out various other elements of the narrative, rather than being restricted to the usual space opera action scenes.

Taken altogether, the book is a slower burn, a denser read than most other space opera. One has to pay attention and put some thought into what one is reading, and maybe have to tolerate some ambiguity until things resolve themselves. Which put me in mind of SF giant Cordwainer Smith.

I first thought of Smith because Mayse's manimals and chimera reminded me of his underpeople, an exploited underclass of genetically modified animals, though Mayse arguably takes things to an even darker place. As I kept reading, I was reminded how Smith's characters similarly took their universe for granted, and he never explained anything. Readers sometimes complained his writing was too obscure, but his fans, and especially other authors, found his work visionary. Shadow Matters may similarly not be to everyone's tastes, but Mayse comes with strong CanLit credentials, and I found the novel well worth the effort.

Shadow Matter is published by Tyche Books.


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