For those who dance, living in the Realm of the Light – a nation solely devoted to the art – is the stuff of utopian dreams. While kids in other countries continue to be groomed for traditional careers as doctors, lawyers and such, the only aspiration of a life lived in the Realm is to qualify for the Competition, the penultimate dancing contest on par with the Olympics. To qualify as a contestant – and the loftier goal of winning – is the pinnacle of existence. Unless you’re Rowan Cole, a teen who senses something sinister trembling beneath the current of a seemingly perfect, albeit single-minded world filled with cookie-cutter houses and inhabitants to match. Harboring a secret ambition to learn the martial arts, something she learned about as a child during a visit to a museum called “Darkness before the Peace,” Rowan has a growing desire to use her physical prowess to protect herself and “punish” those deserving of a good beat down. This isn’t going to fly in the Realm of Light or with Ms. Wren, the nation’s stringent ruler. But considering her mother is a Competition champion and her twin brother seems destined for the same glory, the miserable Rowan finds herself strapped with the burden of expectation. And that burden is intensified by her growing suspicion that the Realm is not all it is cracked up to be.
Rowan’s mother, away on official Realm business, has been gone an exceedingly long time. Though she checks in via email, there’s something un-Mom-like about those messages. Rowan’s brother, Leon, may be in danger, as well. Determining who to trust is tricky business, especially when everyone seems perfectly content to either execute a plié or watch others do it. When Rowan is approached by a mysterious stranger, she views it as an opportunity to join up with other like-minded rebels called “Alternatives.” The consequences could be severe, but it’s a chance she feels she must take to fulfill her dreams and discover the dark secrets of the Realm.
As far as young adult fantasy thrillers go, this novel hits all the marks. In the spirit of “The Hunger Games” series, the protagonist is a strong, young girl hellbent on confronting evil and affecting meaningful change in her world. The story is thought-provoking, especially regarding the timely issues of corruption in government and female empowerment. Rowan is a character that readers will root for as she tightropes the quivering wire between outward appearances and inner ambitions. As a friend, daughter, sister and emboldened warrior, she is relatable and shines with a rare likeability. This makes her final showdown with the toxic, duplicitous Ms. Wren even more suspenseful and, ultimately, satisfying. Rowan might not be keen on learning ballet, but she dances in her own, beautiful way, nevertheless.
Author Sophie Shepherd’s fascinating and entertaining debut novel, SHADOWS IN THE LIGHT convincingly depicts a dystopian nation in which 16-year-old Rowan Cole goes rogue to find personal fulfillment and subdue the dark forces of a seemingly idyllic world.
~Libby Wiersema for IndieReader