Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody

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ShadowmancerReleased in time to coincide with the “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” feeding frenzy in 2003, Shadowmancer quickly triggered a lot of media hype and even got itself tipped in some circles as being “hotter than Potter”. In fact, Shadowmancer soon had something of a cult growing around it, with sales outstripping many other children’s books, and first editions fetching as much as £1,000 on the web. The bewildering popularity of this novel has only grown since then, with three other books having been released to make up the Shadowmancer quartet (Wormwood, Tersias and The Shadowmancer Returns), and I understand that a film is also being made of this book by Universal Pictures (which just goes to show really that any of us can make it big with our writing, if you can become a millionaire from writing this stuff).

Shadowmancer is set in the 1700s in the smuggling country that surrounds the Yorkshire coast – it is a setting that has considerable potential for a story, you might think. And well it would, were it not for the fact that Shadowmancer is a derivative, hocus-pocus, first rate tripe fiction than can’t really decide whether it is supposed to be a work of moral substance for today’s adolescents or a fantasy novel. In the end, it manages to be neither, and I suppose it ends up as distinctly second rate Christian allegory dressed up as fantasy – a sort of poor man’s Narnia if you will. The plot centres on a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out of a baddie: a mean, wicked, cruel man who has conned his way into becoming vicar of the imaginatively named Baytown. This vicar – one Obadiah Demurral, who fancies himself as a bit of a sorcerer – is after an artefact of power that will give him control over the entire world (mwah ha ha!). The only thing that stands between him and his evil plans for world domination are two semi-orphaned teenagers called Kate and Thomas, and the assistance of a huge but loveable half-human living in a cottage on the edge of human society called Reuben. Is anyone else getting a little Harry Potter deja vu here?

Anyway, our two intrepid heroes soon meet up with a visitor from Africa called Raphah, also something of a sorcerer but a follower of Riathamus (for which you can read The One True Christian God) so of course he is a good guy. He is also after the artefact of power and trying to stop Parson Demurral using it to raise Pyratheon (for which you can read Satan, although he is very unimaginatively portrayed as a ginger haired guy in leather). Despite his exotic origins, Raphah naturally speaks the King’s English perfectly and manages to move around 18th century rural Yorkshire without raising so much of a passing interest in the local inhabitants. This leaves the rest of the book to deal with transporting the object of power on a journey across the countryside, occasionally being attacked by random supernatural beasties, and for a big Good Vs Evil showdown at the end. (Is it any wonder I was half expecting the good sorcerer to be called Albus Gandalf?). I would say that some of these ideas had been lifted straight from Tolkien, Phillip Pullman or CS Lewis, only the writing in Shadowmancer is nowhere near as absorbing, well paced or believable.

“… I feel Taylor was incredibly blunt, clumsy and forceful in using religion in this book.”

The characters themselves are pretty basic. They have no depth, no consistency and do not develop over the course of the book. Take our protagonist Kate, for example. When we first meet her, we are told, “she always said she feared nothing” and “she could never cry”; she is a tough character who dress in boy’s clothes and carries her father’s pistol with her to prove it. So what happens as soon as the storyline gets underway? She puts a dress on at the first opportunity and proceeds to cry and scream her way through the plot in the most pathetically girly manner. Then there is supposed uber-baddie Demurral. Taylor created him on the basis that “the problem with villains in children’s books is that they aren’t scary enough” – he may well have a point, but this identikit bad guy is about as scary as Judy Garland’s Dorothy. It is not that he doesn’t do plenty of nasty things – Demurral regularly beats his servant, imprisons debtors to work as slaves in his alum mine and keeps contraband in tunnels beneath the vicarage – it is just that you can’t take him seriously as someone who is meant to hell bent (literally) on taking over the world. He divulges the secret whereabouts of his magical kit on a regular basis to those about him. He repeatedly trusts his sidekick Beadle to assist him in his deeds despite him proving to be incompetent, drunk and untrustworthy on a regular basis. He even has a worrying inability to detect intruders wandering about his own house, despite having access to numerous oracles and trickery that would easily alert him to their presence. Throughout this book, I found each and every character to be wholly unbelievable, and as a result I really couldn’t identify with a single one of them.

The writing for the most part of Shadowmancer feels stilted and unnatural, although it does pick up somewhat in the second half. Unfortunately, by this point the reader has long since given up caring what happens in the book – I only continued in the vague hope of it improving and because of the time I had invested in reading the first part. Despite the book being a mere 300 pages long, it took me quite a while to plough through Shadowmancer because I just wasn’t compelled to carry on reading. When I was reading, I found my attention kept on wandering, as I just couldn’t get involved in what was happening. The ending is a real anticlimax as well. I won’t spoil it (!) for you, but suffice to say that it left you with a distinct “is that it?” feeling.

It really comes as no surprise to learn that the author of Shadowmancer is himself a vicar in Yorkshire. This book seems in essence to be an overtly Christian retort to the popularity of witchcraft and black magic that abounds in modern children’s/teens’ literature and media (not to mention the out and out anti-religion rants of His Dark Materials). I personally have no problem with the author using his book as a means of promoting his ideas and beliefs, nor do I think that writing a book with some moral substance is a bad thing; Shadowmancer does contain important themes such as loyalty to your friends and standing up for what you believe in. However, Taylor is not one for subtlety, and never misses the opportunity to ram home black and white religious statements such as “If you are not for Riathamus, then you are against him; there is no neutrality in the kingdoms of heaven and hell.” It is also packed with religious imagery aplenty, from angels to mysterious strangers sharing loaves and fishes with the good guys. What in short this amounts to is a denouncement of anything that cannot be directly associated with the Christian God – paganism, other religions and practices such as reading the tarot cards. While Raphah is perfectly entitled to his religious magic, of course, Demurral is not because it is directed towards the wrong god; this is bluntly symbolised through Raphah performing miracles “through the divine spirit” while Demurral deals in oracles and pentacles. (I should just make it clear that I am not on an anti-Christian rant here, it is just that I feel Taylor was incredibly blunt, clumsy and forceful in using religion in this book).

I feel I really cannot recommend this book to anyone. Shadowmancer was so unrelentingly tortuous to read that it is beyond belief that it made it onto bestseller lists. Please do not believe the hype. Please do not make such a gullible purchasing decision as I did. This book needs to be given the bargepole treatment, I’m afraid. Avoid it.

Shadowmancer is written by GP Taylor and published in 2003 by Faber & Faber.

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by GP Taylor

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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