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Sunday, June 17, 2012

'The Shadow Reader' McKenzie Lewis #1 by Sandy Williams

 From the BLURB:

There can only be one allegiance.
It’s her time to choose.

Some humans can see the fae. McKenzie Lewis can track them, reading the shadows they leave behind. But some shadows lead to danger. Others lead to lies.

A Houston college student trying to finish her degree, McKenzie has been working for the fae king for years, tracking vicious rebels who would claim the Realm. Her job isn’t her only secret. For just as long, she’s been in love with Kyol, the king’s sword-master—and relationships between humans and fae are forbidden.

But any hope for a normal life is shattered when she’s captured by Aren, the fierce and uncompromising rebel leader. He teaches her the forbidden fae language and tells her dark truths about the Court, all to persuade her to turn against the king. Time is running out, and as the fight starts to claim human lives, McKenzie has no choice but to decide once and for all whom to trust and where she ultimately stands in the face of a cataclysmic civil war.

The shadows changed McKenzie Lewis’s life forever when she was just sixteen-years-old. She started seeing people that nobody else seemed to notice. Beautiful people with lightning under their skin, walking around attracting no attention whatsoever, except from McKenzie. Those people were fae, and in seeing them she discovered something about herself – that she can read their shadows.

The shadows are like road maps that the fae leave behind when they travel between worlds – and McKenzie is one of the few people who can ‘read’ those shadows to track them down. When McKenzie’s talent was discovered, the fae King thought to use her in a civil war that has been raging between the fae – a war against the Kingdom, instigated by a false-blood pretender to the throne.

The fae have been good to McKenzie. They made sense of her ‘madness’, even after her family turned on her and broke off communications. And, best of all, her association with the fae introduced her to Kyol – the King’s sword-master, charged with ferrying McKenzie between worlds and keeping her safe from the rebellion, who would use her shadow-reading talents for their cause.

For ten years McKenzie has been helping the fae King in his war, and working closely with Kyol. She has loved him since she was sixteen and though secret and forbidden, their love means everything to McKenzie . . .  and then one day the rebellion break through. They discover McKenzie’s location and kidnap her, killing Kyol’s guards and possibly him in the process.

McKenzie’s kidnapper is none other than Aren, the Butcher of Brykeld; a renowned fae fighter, almost as good with a sword as Kyol. Aren is the half-blood rebel trying to claim the throne. Or is he?

McKenzie spends the first half of her imprisonment fighting to escape and bargaining for her life. But as the weeks go by, the rebellion start talking to her – asking questions. They ask why the King forbids humans to learn the fae language, and in the meantime they start teaching McKenzie. They ask her why the King has forbid fae/human relations – when so many humans, McKenzie included, work for him in fighting a war that is not theirs. Aren and the rebellion fae also ask McKenzie to question the brutality of this war, and if all the deaths thus far lay entirely at their feet.

But even while imprisoned, McKenzie pines for Kyol; his stoic bravery and the moments when he lets his guard down and reveals how very much he wants her. McKenzie misses him, even as she slowly falls for Aren’s impulsive, cocky charm.

But what happens when McKenzie is rescued and returns for the Kingdom with questions – about this civil war and her place in it, about Kyol’s true intentions and where humans stand in this fae war. And, the biggest question of all, which side is she on?

‘The Shadow Reader’ is the first book in urban fantasy series called ‘McKenzie Lewis’, which was released last year by Sandy Williams.

I am so torn about this book. I really liked it, and look forward to second book ‘The Shattered Dark’ coming October this year. But I must admit that I did struggle through quite a bit of the world-building, which is never a good sign in an urban fantasy book.

Williams jumps into the action from the get-go. Within the first chapter Kyol has come to whisk McKenzie away from her university exams (her fourth attempt to graduate) only to be ambushed by rebellion fae who kidnap her and jump between worlds to take her to their compound. There is a lot to absorb in a very small amount of introduction time – and normally I love that ‘sink or swim’ mentality in my urban fantasy books; it sort of defines the very genre that is often action-packed and full-throttle. But I don’t know that it is done so well in ‘Shadow Reader’, and because I was inundated with a lot of universe-related information early on (but didn’t really absorb or understand it) I found myself lagging behind later on in the book, when that universe was further explained.

So basically fae exist, but in a different universe to ours (let me quote the Doctor and put this ‘world leaping’ down to “a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff” because that’s the only way I could understand it). When fae travel between worlds, or destinations within a world, they leave behind some sort of residue that only shadow-readers like McKenzie can decipher to pinpoint their exact location. Naturally, this is a useful talent to have in a time of war, and when we meet her McKenzie has been working for the fae King for ten years. Now, this is all very interesting, but amidst the helter-skelter opening chapter I kind of lost all the information about the Kingdom, rebellion and exactly what it is that McKenzie does with the shadows. Obviously Williams revisits all these points later on, teasing them out to more thoroughness, but initially I was quite thrown because on top of all this information and McKenzie being abducted, I did lose my footing with the plot’s rather intricate back-story.

But it wasn’t just the universe-building that’s important history; Williams also drops plot points about McKenzie’s secret ten-year relationship with sword-master Kyol very early on. Though unconsummated, Kyol and McKenzie have been playing out a forbidden romance for a decade – secret because it is against the King’s law for fae and humans to have relations (heck, it’s even illegal for humans to learn the fae language). Very quickly it becomes apparent to readers that McKenzie’s kidnapping is tragic for more than just her safety – it has also torn her and Kyol apart.

I had a few small hiccups with the Kyol/McKenzie relationship, and I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with them. First off, I think Williams wrote a hard task for herself by letting readers know all about McKenzie’s ten-year relationship with Kyol only through her thinking about it internally. It’s a lot of telling not showing with regards to their feelings; with McKenzie musing on how they started with long looks and lingering touches, progressing to kisses and Kyol proclaiming that they can never officially be together because he won’t betray the kingdom (but McKenzie lives in hope). McKenzie and Kyol’s relationship is also partly explained when rebellion fighter and kidnapper, Aren, guesses at their romance and starts poking and prodding the point. Honestly, I don’t know that as readers we were meant to ever be invested in Kyol and the possibility of him and McKenzie – but I just wasn’t sure. I actually hope that they are teased out a lot more in the second book, because the triangle that’s established is a complicating one with lots of potential, if only we get to know Kyol (and his feelings for McKenzie) a little better with more *showing*.

Now, Aren is an entirely different story. I loved him and his instant sparking interactions with McKenzie. Obviously as kidnapped/kidnapper they have a very unusual dynamic, but McKenzie quickly comes to learn that the rebellion is not what she has been taught to be wary of, and Aren is not the same ‘Butcher of Brykeld’ whispered throughout the fae Kingdom. He’s roguish and charming, challenging McKenzie and her role in this civil war as innocent, human bystander. That was what worked for me most of all – that he challenges McKenzie, gets under her skin and makes her see beyond everything she has been told. These two were great together, but I really felt like the book’s crescendo came when McKenzie had choices to make and two men vying for her affections;

The hand on my shoulder sinks lower. It slides down my breast before resting on my hip. Only my thin, satin dress separates us, but if I close my eyes, if I let myself forget everything that matters in both our worlds, I can imagine it disappearing, imagine being skin to skin with him.
My eyes shoot open when Kyol grabs my arm. Aren holds on a moment more, his lips and hands lingering as if this is hit last breath. As if this is the only breath in his life that has ever mattered. Then he locks eyes with the sword-master.
“You have competition now.”

Just to highlight how very ‘on-the-fence’ I was about this book; I’m not even sure how I felt about McKenzie not being your typical urban fantasy kick-butt heroine. Contrary to the cover image, which shows a powerful McKenzie (with a super-model figure!?) sword in hand, the McKenzie of the book is far less fearsome. She’s actually decidedly, refreshingly human. She is no fighter, and knows her limitations against the far more powerful fae (their aversion to human ‘tech’ aside). She is definitely not the archetypal heroine of other urban fantasy books (a far cry from super-women like Kate Daniels and Mercedes Thompson, that’s for sure). She’s not a wimp, exactly, but she’s not above begging and bargaining for her life and she doesn’t mind relying on bigger, stronger fae men to do the protecting for her. On the one hand, it makes sense that a human in a fae world wouldn’t be cockily kick-butt; she’s far more relatable for flying under the radar. But on the other hand, I do like reading about strong heroines – and while McKenzie by the end of ‘Shadow Reader’ showed a lot of promise and steely determination, a lot of her decisions and actions throughout the book were frustrating to read.

I cannot deny that by the end of ‘The Shadow Reader’ I was eager for the second book. The world-building left me somewhat befuddled, Kyol’s romance left me cold and McKenzie’s decidedly human heroine is not what I have come to expect from the urban fantasy genre . . .  but by the end of the book I was invested in the tricky love triangle, and a little bit smitten with Aren. Not a perfect book, sure, but a pretty darn good one that had me racing to read the end and eager for the second.



  1. Hmm..interesting comments about the heroine. I too like a strong uf heroine (mercy and kate of course) but I think if done right, this type of heroine would be very intriguing. I'm interested to see how you like the second.

    1. Hey Mandi! I know, I was so indecisive about the strong/human heroine thing. I liked her, I did. The cover is very misleading though, and suggests a Kate Daniels-esque ass-kicker, but I did like McKenzie in the end. Looking forward to the second.

  2. Hmmm...sounds like this one is worth checking out, even if you didn't love every aspect of it. Oh, and I had to give a shout-out to the Doctor Who reference. :)

  3. I so lve your reviews! This looks interesting, i'll def keep an eye on this series, but i'll wait for the second one before investing in it :)


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