Reviewed by Paul A. Rose,
Shade by John B. Olson
"All in all, Olson tells a really good, at times somewhat terrifying story, with a well-thought out concept and an interesting exploration of some ground not well-covered by Christian fiction. But it is a novel that is very hard to get into."
I was first introduced to John B. Olson when he teamed up with Randall Ingermanson for their Christy Award-winning novel Oxygen and its follow-up, The Fifth Man, both about a manned trip to Mars. I was very impressed by the novels, so I was very much looking forward to checking out Olson’s solo novel, Shade.
According to the acknowledgements, Shade was the first novel Olson finished, but because of its content, it has taken almost 10 years for the Christian market to expand to such a point that Olson’s editors felt the novel was commercially viable. And true enough, with Ted Dekker, Eric Wilson and Robin Parrish each in their own way exploding the mainstream market with fantasy-styled fiction, this does seem like the best time to release Shade. I just wish they’d spent more time editing it.
The story is well conceived and moves quickly. We are first introduced to Melchi (an apparent homeless man) roaming the streets of San Francisco. He shows the signs of being mentally abused, filled with responsibility and guilt.
We then quickly shift gears to encounter Hailey Maniates, a biochemistry grad student at UC San Francisco, who would rather work than have a social life and often feels at odds with her faith and her exploration of science. When Hailey begins to experience weird hallucinations, she and Melchi’s worlds quickly collide with a significant impact.
Melchi brings Hailey to the hospital following an abduction attempt, and in the process a connection is formed between the two, opening their minds to each other’s thoughts. Along the way, Melchi attempts to explain to Hailey about two factions in a war – the Mulo and the Standing.
As a result of Hailey’s severe reactions to her hallucinations, she is soon the subject of both a police investigation and a psychiatric evaluation.
Midway through the fourth chapter, we are introduced to Athena, part of a group of vampire wannabe’s that is very SCA-like in its structure. Meanwhile, Hailey alternates between fearing and defending Melchi, who she begins to suspect is more than just a helpful homeless man. Add to the mix Boggs, a fellow Christian who befriends Hailey, and Sabazios, a man with a far-reaching mysterious past and hypnotic control over women.
If this all sounds very confusing, trust me, it is. While I love the story and the adventures the characters had, getting into the story is very disjointed and rather bewildering as we try to discover who is what and just what is going on.
Meanwhile, Hailey’s visions increase in frequency and bafflement, leaving her hyper-paranoid, trusting no one, jumping at every shadow, and taking the reader along for the ride. It keeps you guessing at every turn and you never know what anyone’s true character or agenda may be. While this is effective, and some of the confusion early on is done on purpose to set up the story that Olson builds in later chapters, there is some misdirection that is very purposeful because of later revelations in the story.
Unfortunately, the beginning of the novel feels like trying to enjoy the second or third book in a series having never read the volumes that came before. I like that Olson got things moving quickly, but he hops around almost in a scattered fashion, not giving much explanation to the reader as to what is actually happening or why.
All in all, Olson tells a really good, at times somewhat terrifying story, with a well-thought out concept and an interesting exploration of some ground not well-covered by Christian fiction. But it is a novel that is very hard to get into. I began wishing the book had come with a key or glossary to give some sort of primer to what was happening. Olson’s inexperience (at the time he wrote the novel) shows pretty clearly in the first half of the book, and there were many times in the early chapters where I continued reading for the sole purpose of having a review to write.
Please don’t misunderstand. I did enjoy the novel and would recommend it, but it is clunky at first and perhaps a different editor or a more experienced writer could have crafted it better. Which brings me to the most hopeful part of my review. The ending of the novel neatly, but not too obviously, sets room at the table for a second or even ongoing series of novels. With 10 years of experience under his belt, Olson should be able to craft a much more compelling follow-up tale. One I would not hesitate to pick up and devour.
A. Rose, Jr. is a writer-producer working in Southwest Florida. He
served as the Senior Television Editor for Infuze Magazine (limited archives
available at http://infuzeremembered.1330productions.com/) and has also written
articles for RelevantMagazine.com. He is currently co-writing a teen zombie romance
film, Undead Heartache, that he hopes to begin shooting soon. You can follow
the film’s progress at UndeadHeartache.com.