A review of I Become Shadow, by Joe Shine
by REBECCA, June 2, 2014
“Ren Sharpe was abducted at fourteen and chosen by the mysterious F.A.T.E. Center to become a Shadow: the fearless and unstoppable guardian of a future leader. Everything she held dear—her family, her home, her former life—is gone forever.
Ren survives four years of training, torture, and misery, in large part thanks to Junie, a fellow F.A.T.E. abductee who started out as lost and confused as she did. She wouldn’t admit it was possible to find love in a prison beyond imagining, but what she feels for Junie may just be the closest thing to it.
At eighteen they part ways when Ren receives her assignment: find and protect college science student Gareth Young, or die trying. Life following a college nerd is uneventful, until an attack on Gareth forces Ren to track down the only person she can trust. When she and Junie discover that the F.A.T.E. itself might be behind the attacks, even certain knowledge of the future may not be enough to save their kidnappers from the killing machines they created.” (Goodreads)
So, the above blurb gives the whole plot of the novel. Which is okay, I guess? Because, though I Become Shadow is an action book, it’s not really a mystery. The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first part is told retrospectively by Ren Sharpe, our protagonist. She tells us the story of how she came to be abducted at the age of fourteen and how she wakes up in the training facility where she’ll spend the next four years. She meets Junie—who, because the blurb doesn’t refer to as “he,” I assumed was a girl because, well, you know, his name is Junie, and was disappointed to find is, in fact, a boy—and begins her training.
The second third, which is the shortest piece, gives a kind of brief summary of the next four years: how Ren learns everything from mortal combat to defensive driving to techniques in surveilling her future target. Here, Ren and Junie must part ways. But DON’T WORRY! Of all the places in the whole world, they both end up in Texas. Finally, the third part covers Ren’s time at college protecting Gareth, until things get complicated . . . in exactly the way the blurb describes.
I Become Shadow isn’t really a bad book. It just seems unsure what it’s supposed to be doing, a problem that is likely more one of publishing than writing. Because so much of the book (more than half) takes place at the F.A.T.E. center, you’d think that Ren’s trials there are the center of the novel, but they seem to be prodromal to her assignment. Okay, then, well, when we get to Ren’s assignment, you’d think that we were finally getting to the meat of things. But almost nothing happens in this section. Ren herself keeps commenting on how boring it is to watch a nerd (you know, like the blurb said), and, yeah, it’s boring to read about someone being bored watching a nerd. Then, in the very end of the book, the Big Plot is revealed (just like the blurb already told you it would be).
There is nothing that indicates I Become Shadow is the first in a series. But this has to be the first in a series, right? Because we end with everything revealed but nothing resolved. Did Soho Press tell Joe Shine to write a book that could be the first in a series but not commit to a second book? Did this start out as a longer story that got chopped in half? It’s really not clear. The result is a book that might be a very summary standalone or the diffuse first book in a series. Either way, though, it reads wrong in its apportionment.
It’s not awful—there’s some intriguing worldbuilding that undergirds the creation of F.A.T.E. But that raises more questions than it answers (including the kind of annoying questions like, “but based on what you’ve said, why would this ever happen?”). The training sequences feel very similar to Tris’ experiences in Divergent: because Ren and the other future-Shadows are kidnapped because of circumstance not skill, they’re starting their training from nothing, so there are the now-familiar scenes of a normal girl learning self-defense stuff. Again, nothing terrible, just nothing galvanizing.
The real trouble, though, is the voice. I found Ren intensely irritating, and it’s her tone that drives the book. She thinks she’s funny and clever and unique and the other characters’ responses to her seem to uphold her uniqueness, while I sat there thinking, “seriously?” An example: Each trainee receives instruction from a voice piped through a speaker to them. When Ren responds to the voice, she calls him “Mr. Speakervoice.” When it’s time for Ren to graduate, the man behind the voice seeks her out because she’s apparently so unique and amazing and tells her that Mr. Speakervoice is “one of the best names I’ve ever been given that’s for sure [sic]. You’ve certainly been a fun one, Ren” (139). Seriously? That’s like naming your fluffy white cat Snowball—it’s a description of what the thing is. How could that possibly be the best name he’d been given? How, god, how?!
Also problematic: none of the characters have any personalities. Ren is supposed to be wry and snarky (or so her voice must be trying to imply), but we don’t know anything about her. She has also long ago accepted that she’ll never break free of F.A.T.E. to see her family again or live her own life. And she is injected with a serum that makes it so she can’t feel pain or fear death. You know, so she can protect her target more effectively. People, if you don’t have your own hopes, dreams, desires, and fears, and you can’t feel pain or fear death, you know what you are? BORING. Or, in literary terms, a character with no stakes whatsoever. Which makes you boring. And, since Ren didn’t care about her safety, fear anything, or worry about what was going to happen, I couldn’t either. So, it might seem like a great conceit in theory, but in practice it just flattens the story out completely.
All in all, the premise that underlies the creation of F.A.T.E. is the only interesting thing about I Become Shadow, and we get about two sentences about it. The characters are blah, and the story has no real stakes. Again, it’s not terrible or anything, but I was very aware the entire time I was reading it that it could have gone in so many interesting directions and seemed to choose the path of least resistance every time. I hate to be repetitive, but this is what I keep finding with Soho Teen’s releases: decent books that feel too thin and/or tortured into marketable shape to really excite me or do anything.
I’ve read a lot of books recently that explore a similar kind of training/testing teens in their skills of fighting, surveilling, manipulating, killing, escaping, etc. Here are a few that worked better for me than I Become Shadow.
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller (2013). “A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer. Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear. Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?” (Goodreads).
The Naturals (The Naturals #1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (2013). “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie.
What Cassie doesn’t realize is that there’s more at risk than a few unsolved homicides—especially when she’s sent to live with a group of teens whose gifts are as unusual as her own. Sarcastic, privileged Michael has a knack for reading emotions, which he uses to get inside Cassie’s head—and under her skin. Brooding Dean shares Cassie’s gift for profiling, but keeps her at arm’s length.
Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. And when a new killer strikes, danger looms closer than Cassie could ever have imagined. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.” My full review is HERE.
The Testing (The Testing #1) by Joelle Charbonneau (2013). “The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.
Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.
But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.” (Goodreads).
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. I Become Shadow by Joe Shine will be available on June 10th.