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Last Updated, July 2010

    Shadow Song
    Lorina Stephens

    Five Rivers Chapmanry
    trade paper,
    202 pages,

    When a novel is labeled "fantasy", one usually expects the presence of wizards, elves, trolls, and sword-wielding heroes. For many readers, however, the fantasy genre's preoccupation with these Western-derived tropes quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome: If you've seen one massed army of Orcs, you've pretty much seen them all.

Lorina Stephen's Shadow Song, on the other hand, represents a new generation of writers crossing genre and cultural boundaries to produce a more realistically engaging style of fantasy: in this instance, the shamanism of the early 19th century Ojibwa. Shadow Song is a 'cultural fantasy', more reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda than of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. What makes this so refreshing is not just that the tropes are different, or that First Nation shamanism reflects a significant (if often ignored) stream of our shared Canadian heritage; rather, the key is that the fantasy elements emerge here as a natural extension of an organically consistent worldview. Logical consistency has always been fundamental to any successful fantasy, but there is a big difference between simply setting out rules for one's magic system, and demonstrating that these are inherent to the culture. Much of the high fantasy being produced today, I would argue, has become disconnected from the cultures that birthed them, so that the fantasy elements no longer signify anything, but simply exist as free-floating tropes.

In contrast, what makes Shadow Song such a compelling example of cultural fantasy is that most of the characters, struggles, and history are real. As with any fantasy, the novel is ultimately about the battle between good and evil, but instead of clashing armies, Shadow Song depicts the much more subtle clash of cultures. The threat is not the personal ambition of some evil wizard bent on world domination, but the much more abstract and amorphous threat represented by the erosion of the Ojibwa way of life.

Meticulously researched, Shadow Song is based on an actual incident on Upper Canada's frontier in 1832: many of the characters our protagonists encounter were actual people, and the settings are so finely rendered that you can practically reach out to touch the surroundings. It is a world both completely familiar, and weirdly alien. On the one hand, every Canadian schoolboy is acquainted with pioneer life; on the other hand, the narrator's discovery of Ojibwa culture is reminiscent of the best alien-encounter SF, or novels like The Last Samurai initially incomprehensible or frightening beliefs and actions are transformed into a perfectly natural way of seeing things.

Stephens makes this battle of philosophies real to the reader by leaving the fall of the Ojibwa as strictly backdrop, and focusing instead on the very personal feud between the narrator's uncle and an Ojibwa shaman. The story, told from the point of view of a ten-year-old English girl who suddenly finds herself orphaned, and so thrust into the 1830s frontier in Upper Canada, follows the lives of these three individuals. The uncle personifies the dark side of old testament beliefs, not as some cardboard cutout villain, but rather as an illustration of how that belief system inevitably distorts one's personality into self-destructive tendencies. The arrival of his orphaned niece provides him with repeated opportunities for redemption, but he chooses instead the path of vengeance. As the characters are drawn ever deeper into their very personal conflict, they each become increasingly marginalized from their own societies. The destinies of all three, Stephens makes clear, are forged by existential choices driven by one's worldview and one's relationships with the natural world.

In the best tradition of dark, slow Canadian fiction, Shadow Song packs an awfully powerful punch. Narrated in an authentic 1830s voice vaguely reminiscent of Jane Austin, the story grabs the reader from the first page and never lets go. Indeed, in the first 8 pages alone, Stephens manages to recreate the life and times of the narrator's formerly sheltered childhood in England, develop fully rounded characterizations of her parents, and then depict the family's Dickenness collapse. It is an astonishing piece of writing, and worth the price of admission all on its own. And it goes on like that, for 200 pages.

Which raises the question, why wasn't this novel snapped up by a mainstream publisher? Much as I would like to hold this omission up as an indictment of recent trends in Canadian publishing, I do appreciate that Shadow Song may have only limited best-seller potential. It's a difficult novel to market, precisely because it cuts across genres: too much the historical romance to be shelved with Tolkien and Rowling, the fantasy elements are too extensive and the ending way too dark to market as historical romance. That only leaves "Canadian literature", and although there is a strong potential here for a history/anthropology/novel study cross-overs, the school market is closed to Shadow Song thanks to three sex scenes. What big publisher wants to take on the vanishingly small demand for Canadian literature if its limited to the general public?

Further, the First Nation's content leaves Stephens open to charges of racism and cultural appropriation. Stephens is clearly sympathetic to Ojibwa sensibilities: by the end of the novel, the reader is grieving the spread of English settlements into Ojibwa country, and the consequent loss of Ojibwa culture. Nevertheless, to remain authentic, the narration necessarily retains some of the 'noble savage' stereotyping common to the 1830's, and whereas I view this as one of the novel's strengths, modern activists often fail to make such distinctions, and so take misguided umbrage. Further, even though the narration is entirely from the point of view of an English Canadian, the charge of cultural appropriation could easily embroil the novel in distracting controversy, so one has to forgive a little the big publishers not wanting to take a risk on the novel.

None of which should deter you, dear reader, from rushing out to buy a copy. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: Since writing this review, I have joined Five Rivers Chapmanry as an acquisition editor.