Review: In Shadows by Rebecca S. Foote

Guest Reviewed by SCD Goff
SCD specialises in reviewing self-published books, in fact she thrives on it, preferring it to more traditionally published novels. Her reviews are thorough, with good tips for debut authors on what worked well and what didn't, and overall I can guarantee your novels are in good hands.
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Published November 4th 2011 by Echelon Press LLC
In the fall of 1832, London, England, Ariana Dallenhauf begins an unlikely journey into the dark reaches of the unknown. Her guide and mentor, Dimitri Rochester, takes the young woman and attempts to transform her into what he deems more worthy, an immortal; for Dimitri Rochester is the shadow that consumes light; he is an artful killer, a vampire. Although Ariana is reluctant, she has no choice but to follow Dimitri into her new existence.

While adapting to her new life, Ariana discovers that her assumptions about Dimitri are wrong and her feelings for him have changed into something more passionate. In gaining a better understanding of what it means to be a vampire, Ariana discovers her history with vampires goes back further than she ever imagined, for she is in the middle of a legend and has become part of its unfolding story.
The author sets the scene in London, 1832. Rarely can an author effectively transpose her work to another time and another continent and succeed in creating a believable narrative. Unfortunately, Ms Foote, like most others, doesn’t get there. Instead the style sounds as if it was written by an able American author who can’t quite differentiate between American and England styles. This is a shame: if the story was set in present-day America (and I can’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be so) the author would have accomplished the creation of something with a more honest and realistic voice and style. We have phrases like ‘check on you’, ‘I just need a moment’, and ‘I guess’ – you’d have trouble finding phrases like this in present-day England, never mind the London of nearly 200 years ago. I acknowledge that historical accuracy (ice for champagne? In the middle of London in 1832?) isn’t of paramount importance here, but if the author isn’t making use of the voice, style and atmosphere of her chosen place and period.
The story opens with a scene involving a woman being chased down by vampires.  The use of the past tense here gives a slightly stale feel to the action. The atmosphere is a little disappointing; it’s a rainy evening in central London, and the streets are quiet – it should be brilliantly creepy but stilted language doesn’t help. ‘Her desire for safety was paramount.’ It’s pretty obvious that the woman wants to be safe – but how do her feet sound against the cobblestones, what do those greasy old streets smell like? The author confuses the issues further by sometimes referring to the character as ‘she’ and to offer a change from this, sometimes as ‘the shop assistant’ – this method isn’t terribly effective and if anything ensures that the reader is holding the character at arm’s length.
Despite some awkward turns of phrase (‘He lifted him up and flew into the dark night, quickly drinking his blood and also breaking his neck, so he would stop screaming.’) there are also some gems, like ‘subtle as a shadow’. When the author concentrates on clarity, keeping sentences short so that the story can speak for itself, some of her promise as a story-teller really shines through. And this is a story- rather than character-led novel.

But, as always, a strong edit would have been incredibly helpful to iron out some of these thoughtless sentences: ‘Two prostitutes stood on the street near a brothel trying to entice people. He came up to the women and smiled at them. One of them, a prostitute with blonde hair, invited him closer.’

And later: ‘Throughout the night, both Ariana's father and Nathaniel looked for her. The two of them were bereft by her disappearance and searched exhaustedly, but it was to no avail. Try as they might, they could not find her. No one would have ever guessed what truly happened to her, or that they would never see her sweet innocence again.’
There is much to like, however, such as the petty squabbling of the vampires, which makes them seem more animal and also more human. A protégé is taken on, a ‘huge’ responsibility. We are told that things didn’t work out so well when Dimitri last took on a protégé. This provides a tasty bit of foreshadowing.
The story the shifts gears and we are given Ariana, the ingénue’s perspective, which is a welcome change. Again the reader is surprised with some good detailing; the new protégé connects with her lost lift with her fiancé through the item of clothing she wore when she was last with him. This is an honestly touching moment.  In fact, the story is always strongest when told from Ariana’s perspective; she is being introduced to the vampire world, just as the reader is, so we can discover and commiserate with her – but it would be good to have a greater difference between her still half-mortal world and their depraved one, with different voices and more atmosphere.
People are always ‘sensing’ and ‘feeling instinctively’ – these sentences should be watched out for – if the author is doing her job, then she will be able to trust that we, the reader are doing ours, too; we will know when the characters are sensing something because we sense it too. For example, ‘She obviously knew very little about being a vampire, but felt instinctively that Dimitri would be a good teacher.’ The author has already done her work here; we have watched Dimitri watch his pupil carefully, and we already know that he’ll be a good teacher. So the sentence becomes redundant. The author should trust the reader in other ways too - we know already that there is a tension between the idea of vampire as beast and vampire as sophisticate, so when the author belts us over the head with this idea, saying ‘He was an enigma of sorts, because he was both a gentleman and a beast’ we feel like rolling our eyes. Furthermore, the author won’t allow the reader to make our own judgments on the natures of these vampires she has created, as the narrative voice throws around words like ‘evil’. The author is perhaps unconsciously setting herself up in opposition to her reader by over-riding the reader’s natural feelings, rather than working with them.

When the author if forthcoming with details, they’re generally interesting and thoughtful. Too often we lack them though, which lends a slightly unbelievable air to the action scenes: ‘He was transforming into a gigantic demon … Dimitri had hanged into an enormous dark demon that seemed to phase into shadow. Large horns began growing out of his massive head and his eyes glowed, red as if on fire. His teeth were long and sharp and he looked terrifying. It was as if the devil himself was standing before her.’ This isn’t enough; he has red eyes, big teeth, horns and he’s large. But what’s his skin like? Does he smell? What happened to his clothes? How big is ‘gigantic’ – 8 foot or 25? Can she still see the remnants of Dimitri in the demon?
Other weaknesses involve a lack of differentiation in voices of characters. Each sounds almost identical, and so again the reader misses out on details and atmosphere. My edition didn’t have page numbers, but the author names her chapters, which I found distracting: it feels pointless and quite Enid Blyton-esque to call chapters things like ‘A Strange Development’. On the other hand, the formatting is attractive, which is something of a rarity in this brave new world of eBooks.  
In terms of structure, the story has a nice bookend feel as Ariana goes to see her mortal family once more. On the other hand, the suggested climax to the story never really pays off. The storyline is sound but we miss out on character and atmosphere – and these could make an ordinary, decent-ish story into something magical. Again, one feels that the strength of writing isn’t there – yet – to back up the strength of ideas. It’s difficult as a reviewer to spend as much time on the positive as the negatives. But there are positives here, and for such a new writer, I have every belief that the author can improve on her strengths and diminish her weaknesses in future outings, and thanks to the glimpses of real promise shown here, I for one will look forward to that.
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