In the Shadows by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo

I’m a sucker for beautiful books, and In the Shadows is nothing if not beautiful. The cover tells you that the text story is by Kiersten White and the art story by Jim Di Bartolo, letting you know right away that the art is not just a series of pretty illustrations – they tell a story that intertwines with the text in important ways, if inscrutable at first.

The story is set (mostly) in Maine, in 1900, in a boardinghouse run by a widowed woman, Mrs. Johnson. She has two teenage daughters, Cora and Minnie. Arthur, a rather brooding teenager, has been sent to stay at the boardinghouse for mysterious reasons; ditto for teen brothers Charles and Thomas. Charles, the elder brother, is dying from an unspecified disease. Together, the five teens become caught up in a dark conspiracy that goes back many years. I won’t share much more (that would ruin some of the fun of discovery), but I will say that the conspiracy is supernatural in origin.

Reading this book was a bit like playing the computer game Myst. Those of you who have played it, or any of its sequels, will know that there’s a storyline, often featuring strange secrets and faraway places, that the player must discover along the way. There are the stunning graphics that tell part of the story, but then there’s also journals, letters, and voiceover – text, really – that tells the rest. Figuring out how everything goes together is the main puzzle of Myst, and I felt like this book was a similar sort of puzzle. The book alternates between art chapters and text chapters. The art chapters have no captions and no dialogue. There are a few letters to characters, but they’re partly obscured so you can’t make out them entirely. They’re clues. The fun, the discovery, is learning how the art story and text story coalesce. It’s not readily apparent at first; stick with it. The rewards are worth it.

I loved Jim Di Bartolo’s work on Lips Touch: Three Times, so it’s unsurprising that I loved it here as well. Here, his art is equal in significance to the text, inviting multiple re-reads and long moments spent poring over the panels. His work is very moody, fitting the tone of the story. His colors are bold, and he uses a liberal amount of black, often casting his characters in shadow. I encourage you to check out a few samples at his website. His art is entirely my style.

White’s no slouch here either. She chooses to tell her part of the story by varying the points of view, though everything remains third person. I think she does a fine job of developing the characters in this way. She doesn’t get a whole lot of space to do it, considering the book is 384 pages and many of those pages belong to the art. At first I had a hard time remembering who was whom (which one is the sick one? Which ones are related?), but this didn’t last long. She gets across quite nicely Charles’ cheerfulness as well as his desperation, Thom’s feelings of helplessness, Cora’s fear, Minnie’s desire to help Cora past that fear – often in unwise ways. The only other book of hers I’ve read is Mind Games, and I think the writing of In the Shadows is much stronger.

Even these text pages are works of art – everything is on glossy paper with lovely, subdued splashes of color around the borders. The whole book has the weight of a graphic novel. In many ways, the stories told by the text and art are not completely original, but the way they’re told is, and that’s what makes this book stand out.

This is a book that needs to be read twice. The first time, read it straight through as presented; the second, go back and re-read just the art. You’ll pick up on more details, and most of your lingering questions will be answered. In the Shadows is unique among current YA offerings (though I’m not wild about its generic title) and will satisfy fantasy readers looking for something different.

Review copy provided by the publisher at TLA. In the Shadows will be published April 29.

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  1. says

    I'm currently reading this one and really enjoying it. I think it will certainly be a surprise who think that graphic novels are easier to get than text novels – the art requires thought and interpretation.

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