Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Genre(s): Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy
Page Count: 496 (hardcover)
Post-apocalyptic books and I have somewhat grown apart in the last few years. These days, if I want my daily dose of doom and gloom, I just pop open Twitter; I don’t exactly find myself reaching for it in fiction. And in most of these stories, you’re presented with a dichotomy: you get a setting that’s bleak and grim and fraught with danger; and you get small glimpses of hope and beauty in the actions of the characters who are trying to survive it. The latter–however small or brief it may be–is what keeps the story from getting too unbearable. But these days, for me, those tiny rays of hope just aren’t enough to dispel the misery of the setting.
Peng Shepherd, however, does something with the genre I haven’t seen before, and that’s inject magic and wonder into a post-apocalyptic world.
The Book of M presents a near future where people’s shadows have begun to disappear. And with the loss of their shadows, they begin to forget. And as they forget, the world changes. Literally. You’ve forgotten that your house is supposed to have a front door? Well, now it’s gone. You’ve forgotten that animals aren‘t supposed to be able to converse with humans? Oh look, a talking bird. It’s almost like something out of a children’s fairytale–“And one day, some of the shadows decided they longer wished to be attached to the humans. And so they tugged and tugged and out they popped free, ready to have adventures of their own!”
What I love is that this is a world that’s being destroyed not by zombies or nuclear warfare, but by memories. And there’s such beauty in the way that the world is breaking. It’s in the winged deer that our characters encounter. It’s in the malformed cities and altered landscapes. It’s in the notion that our memories are so powerful, the loss of them shifts the very fabric of our universe. As the characters’ situations become more and more dire, the magical aspect becomes more and more frequent and potent, and some of the last scenes in the book are ones straight out of high fantasy. It’s spellbinding stuff.
But there’s also horror to the story. Because I think there are few things more frightening than having the world we know slowly scrubbed away until all that’s left is a vague suggestion of an outline. And what happens when you forget a specific detail of a loved one’s face? What happens when you forget that your sister had actually survived that terrible car crash all those years ago? Shepherd takes the real-life terror of Alzheimer’s and gives it an extra set of fangs, wings, and the ability to breathe fire. The result is as chilling as it is fascinating.
As we follow the point-of-view of four characters–Ory, his wife Max, Naz, and a mysterious man known as “The One Who Gathers”–in their journey across this changed America, we encounter many strange and frightening things, from cults and scavengers to a moving lake. The characters are all complex and diverse, and while I have mixed feelings about the direction that some of their relationships took, their interactions are, for the most part, quite compelling. Really, my biggest criticism is the sheer number of travel sequences, which I don’t particularly enjoy in any genre.
In the end, The Book of M is a haunting story that explores the power of memories and human connections that I recommend to both lovers and haters of post-apocalyptic fiction. It iterates the idea that we are, all of us, sums of all the people whose lives we have touched–the names and faces that etch onto our minds and form the foundation of our selves.
And it asks: what are you willing to sacrifice to hold onto them?