Recently, I was privileged to receive an ARC of the long-awaited new James Patterson book rebooting THE SHADOW to review in my column on Forces of Geek. Now that that review has posted, I'm sharing it here as well:
James Patterson has been the world’s bestselling novelist for quite a few years now. He’s written thrillers, adventures, romances, fantasies, children’s books, etc. I think he even has a cookbook! He’s mentored and collaborated with quite a few other writers, too, as well as contributing much time and money to charities and literacy efforts. He’s a successful man and he’s a good man.
Unfortunately, I’ve never cared much for his actual writing.
Patterson’s newest novel, written in collaboration with Brian Sitts, is The Shadow. Yes, THE Shadow. Well…supposedly.
You know, I’d love to be able to give The Shadow an unqualified rave review and maybe get a quote from me in some of its marketing or a blurb on the back of its inevitable sequel. The problem is that I can’t. It’s a bit of a mess, actually. Quite an entertaining mess in its own way but a mess nonetheless.
The book is a real page turner. From start to finish I read it all in just a little over 24 hours even though it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
I’m pretty familiar with The Shadow. It was the first old time radio show I remember ever hearing, from an LP brought in by a substitute teacher when I was in the 7thgrade. I spent the next decade ordering hundreds of OTR cassettes including quite a few Shadow episodes. At that same time, I learned about the pulp version—pretty much a different character—from the first volume of Steranko’s History of Comics. A few years later, Steranko covers topped the paperback reprints I was reading of those pulp stories. And in comics so many companies did their own versions, some of which were pretty adult. My friend Anthony Tollin—the world’s biggest living Shadow expert—edited Walter Gibson's The Shadow Scrapbook and later reprinted nearly all of the original “Maxwell Grant” stories in beautiful modern editions. Author Martin Grams, Jr. wrote a detailed history of the character’s radio incarnation and I assisted him behind the scenes on that volume. And let’s not forget the visually exciting Alec Baldwin movie of The Shadow! I even bought one of the action figures that came out with that.
So yeah, I’m pretty familiar with the Shadow…and this really isn’t him. Or maybe I should say there doesn’t seem to be any NEED for this to be him.
Patterson and Sitts have written an exciting dystopian science-fiction novel with elements reminiscent of both the Marvel and DC comics universes, and a little touch of Alan Moore’s Marvelman. With its teenage female protagonist, it would be easy to mistake it for a young adult book if not for a couple of scenes very much inappropriate for young adults.
We know that the young woman, Maddy by name, is the POV character because she is the first-person narrator of at least half of the book’s 104 chapters. In a rather odd move for an author, all the chapters NOT narrated by Maddy are written in third person.
Normally I try to make my reviews fairly spoiler-free but it’s not really possible to really get into some of the problems I have with this book without giving away a few plot points so be advised. From here on out, there be SPOILERS.
The book opens with what in my opinion is its best written segment, set in 1937 and featuring a very recognizable Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane. The only surprise is that the generally aloof Lamont is about to ask Margo to marry him. An even bigger surprise is her implied secret pregnancy. This segment takes up Chapters 1-3 and ends with the pair being poisoned, and yet Lamont somehow having the superhuman will to drive them both across town to a secret warehouse/laboratory he owned.
Cut to 150 years later and another Chapter 1.
Maddy is described as 18 but as written comes across as maybe 16. She’s yet another of those plucky, rebellious teenage heroines like Goldie Vance, Nubia, Primer, or even Supergirl, who have turned up so often in graphic novels I’ve reviewed recently on this site.
Maddy lives in a world where the privileged elites have it all and the rest of the world is left to live in decaying slums, scrounging for food and being “kept in their place” by violent armored police. One day she gets a letter from one of the few attorneys left in business, saying she has received a mysterious inheritance. Presuming it to be money she can give to her grandma, she hurries to his office. Instead, under the influence of Maddy’s immediately revealed mind control powers, he sends her to a seemingly abandoned warehouse near the docks to pick up the inheritance, which turns out to be a man—Lamont Cranston, his body preserved since the night he was poisoned, artificially kept alive.
This is where my problems start.
Why does Maddy inherit Lamont? Why did these attorneys wait generations before contacting this particular person? Clearly, the mind control powers signal some sort of relationship, but why not her mother, or HER mother or father? Why Maddy? We never find out.
It takes all of maybe 15 minutes for Maddy—not a scientist, remember—and the old caretaker she finds there—a chemist—to completely revive Lamont, who is fine. But wait. What about the poison? Shouldn’t he still be dying of the poison? Did it go inert at some point? How would he have known that would happen?
The pair of them leave the warehouse fairly quickly, just abandoning the long-faithful caretaker, only to have him later team up with the long-faithful attorney to give up Lamont to the bad guys, in spite of all those generations of faithful family service.
Lamont is soon wondering where Margo is, convinced that she, too, would have survived as that had been his plan all along. It never occurs to either of them, however, that maybe she would have been at that same warehouse/lab, where Lamont had taken her back in 1937? Sure enough, a few chapters later, they return and revive her just as easily, even though her paperwork indicated she was actually dead. The lovebirds tell each other how much each one missed the other, but that’s just silly because, to them, it had only been minutes at best since they’d seen each other!
Before all that, though, Lamont insists on being taken to his Manhattan mansion, presumably thinking it would have just sat there abandoned for the past 150 years waiting for his return. He surmises that Margo would likely be there waiting for him. I realize he just woke up from 150 years sleep but this is supposedly a man with a very keen mind. I don’t know. Maddy steals a car, even though only the Elites drive, and somehow gets them to the mansion which by total coincidence is now the fortress residence of the World President, a smiling dictator who, in another amazing coincidence, just happens to be The Shadow’s ancient enemy, Shiwan Khan…and also the one who poisoned Margo and Lamont back in 1937.
And what do you know, he’s STILL working on perfecting that very same poison, with the goal of eliminating as many of the poorest men, women, and children as possible. His eager lieutenant in this, one Sonor Breece, is a sadistic monster in human form akin to Jack Kirby’s Desaad, who performed a very similar role under Darkseid.
Another unbelievable coincidence is that Maddy is quite familiar with The Shadow and Lamont Cranston from years of collecting bootleg pulp magazines and old-time radio shows. Whoa! What are the odds? Lamont remembers them, too. He says they grossly exaggerated his real-life crimefighting adventures and he never liked them, particularly the iconic depiction of him in the slouch hat with the red scarf. He tells Maddy he never even owned a hat, which is, of course, ridiculous, as males of all ages in the 1930s wore hats. It was a huge business. Look at any old movie and if there are a dozen men, you’re likely to see a dozen hats. (There is a funny scene later on, though, where Lamont dresses up in that classic Shadow look to crash a masquerade.)
Maddy is at first convinced this crazy person has just assumed the name of her hero but she does watch him use some of his powers and has to wonder. In order to save time in convincing her, the authors have him use a Vulcan Mind Meld-type move which instills his entire backstory directly into Maddy’s consciousness so she’s now a believer.
Once Margo is revived, it’s revealed that she, too, has powers, but not as many as Lamont as he points out randomly that he seems for no given reason to have developed some new ones while in stasis all those decades. For instance, not only can he now turn invisible like Marvel’s Sue Richards, but he can now manipulate flame like Sue’s brother, Johnny, the Human Torch. Oh, and did I mention he’s become a Skrull-like shapeshifter, as well? A couple of times, he becomes an orange cat. During the big climactic fight scene, he becomes other things as well, and, oh, by then both Lamont and Maddy can shoot lightning from their hands.
Shiwan Khan can shoot lightning from somewhere, too. We aren’t told where. A satellite, perhaps? In one scene, he uses lightning from the sky to pulverize the building Lamont, Margo, and Maddy have just left, seemingly killing Maddy’s grandmother, who had raised her and whom we had already established meant the absolute world to her.
Surprisingly, that’s barely mentioned again. Yes, they quickly flee for safety but you’d think she’d show a little—no, a LOT—more reaction than she does, even under the circumstances. Instead, we have Margo almost immediately helping a young pregnant woman in labor deliver her baby, a scene that seems to exist only to cause Margo to eventually remember how she herself was pregnant when all of this started and wonder whatever happened with her baby.
Margo’s haughty character reads to me like the late actress Jayne Meadows. She’s aloof, demanding, and aristocratic enough to refuse to drink champagne out of anything not at least made of glass and yet also resourceful enough to get any job done when called on. By the time we find out that Maddy is her great-great-great-great granddaughter, a fact that was telegraphed all along, it’s anticlimactic.
More climactic is the exciting, action-filled finale. Maddy describes it as like something right out of a Shadownovel but it actually seems more like something out of an Avengersmovie, with Lamont (and Maddy) and Shiwan Khan, now dethroned and thwarted, in a knock-down, drag-out, shape-shifting, energy-tossing, fight in what was once Times Square.
A throwaway line in that scene has Khan referring to Maddy as his own flesh and blood. This remark is never explained (other than Lamont telling her that Khan is lying) and no doubt is something to be dealt with later on in the planned book series.
I know, I know. With all that said, you’d think I didn’t like The Shadow…but I can’t deny I actually did. Maddy is a wonderful creation, somebody who is just trying to get along in a world where she doesn’t really fit. Then she begins to discover she can do things she never thought possible before. That could describe almost any teenage girl in 2021, or just about any year before that, too.
And make no mistake. When the cover of this book says, “Crime has a new enemy,” it’s talking about Maddy, NOT the Shadow. Lamont is a major character but he’s not the center. The same with Margo.
So why are they there? If Patterson and Sitts wanted to write a sci-fi novel about a young girl developing various superpowers and using them to better her world, how did they go from that to the Shadow? Neither the pulp Shadow nor the radio Shadow would be among the first hundred or so characters to pop into my mind to go along with that initial premise.
And if you absolutely felt the need to use the Shadow, why go out of your way to change him so much that he really ISN’T recognizable as the Shadow any longer? Only a few of the names are the same by the end of the book. Change those and you have all new characters.
That opening section? Man, now THAT really WAS the Shadow! Really made me look forward to a nice, atmospheric noir adventure by Patterson set in the 1930s. But, of course, that was never the idea.
I really liked Maddy’s story, too, right up to its happy ending setting up future adventures in 2087 even as it totally ignored the global implications of our heroes toppling the world government.
It’s things like that—the mistakes, the unbelievable coincidences, the plot holes, and all the parts the writers just seem not to have thought through thoroughly—that keep me from being able to actually recommend The Shadow. I liked it, but I liked it in spite of itself. I liked it more, I think, for what it could have been, and almost was, more than for what it actually is.
I’m sorry to say that I still don’t care much for James Patterson’s writing.