STALKING SHADOWS, by Cyla Panin, Amulet Books, Sept. 14, 2021, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult)
A young woman will stop at nothing to break her sister’s curse in Cyla Panin’s Gothic YA fantasy debut, Stalking Shadows.
Seventeen-year-old Marie mixes perfumes to sell on market day in her small eighteenth-century French town. She wants to make enough to save a dowry for her sister, Ama, in hopes of Ama marrying well and Marie living in the level of freedom afforded only to spinster aunts. But her perfumes are more than sweet scents in cheap, cut-glass bottles: A certain few are laced with death. Marie laces the perfume delicately — not with poison but with a hint of honeysuckle she’s trained her sister to respond to. Marie marks her victim, and Ama attacks. But she doesn’t attack as a girl. She kills as a beast.
Marking Ama’s victims controls the damage to keep suspicion at bay. But when a young boy turns up dead one morning, Marie is forced to acknowledge she might be losing control of Ama. And if she can’t control her, she’ll have to cure her. Marie knows the only place she’ll find the cure is in the mansion where Ama was cursed in the first place, home of Lord Sebastien LaClaire. But once she gets into the mansion, she discovers dark secrets hidden away — secrets of the curse, of Lord Sebastien . . . and of herself. —Synopsis provided by Amulet Books
I have mixed feelings about Stalking Shadows. On the one hand, author Cyla Panin’s ambiance is pitch perfect. It’s dark, it’s creepy, it’s got some great moments. On the other hand, it feels more plot than character driven, and the plot gets lost a bit along the way.
Stalking Shadows starts out as a tale about two sisters — Ama, who turns into a wolf-like creature once a month and eats people, and Marie who’s trying to undo the curse. But halfway through, Ama sort of disappears and it’s Marie and Sebastien’s relationship that takes center stage. It’s a weird juxtaposition that feels like Ama is more of a plot device than anything, making it feel like the author got lost somewhere along the way.
Like many gothic fairy tales, Stalking Shadows features some moral ambiguity. For example, Ama kills and eats people without remorse, while Marie brushes it off as killing bad people — aka vagrants, travelers, and criminals. The line they’re not willing to cross is killing children. But Marie doesn’t mind poisoning one if she saves her sister. Most of the characters seem to have lost their “moral compass,” which you’d think would add dimension, but it falls rather flat and leaves you feeling a bit blah about the final outcome.
While I didn’t love Stalking Shadows, I didn’t hate it either. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a darker, grittier fairy tale, it might be a good choice. I suggest checking this one out from the library prior to purchasing.
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