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Book Review: Shade by John B. Olson

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Grad student Hailey Maniates is running for her life. Pursued by a seemingly invisible presence that infiltrates her mind, inciting fear and rage within her, she runs instinctively with no thoughts as to her destination. Hiding amongst the bushes in Golden Gate Park she is attacked by a knife-wielding stranger — a much lesser threat — only to be saved by a towering giant of a man. A homeless man with matted hair, tangled beard and hunched back whose thoughts and emotions somehow resonate within her, creating a sense of trust and safety in his presence.

Following this traumatic evening Hailey is hospitalized, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and released under a heavy medication protocol. Doubting her sanity but sure of what she experienced, she soon recognizes that her life is still in danger. The only one with the answers she needs is her homeless rescuer, Melchi. In order to survive she must plumb the depths of his knowledge, venturing into an unknown territory that includes ancient prophesy and a secret battle between the forces of light and darkness that has been waged for millennia.

In Shade John Olson has created a world in which nothing is as it seems, and where no answers are certain. As Hailey struggles to make sense of the battles raging around her she moves between belief and disbelief, struggling to set her feet on a firm ground that never quite materializes. Olson keeps certain aspects of his story amorphous, leaving room for reader interpretation and paving the way for future novels in this vein.

Often referred to as a Christian vampire novel, I would not assign Shade this label. While the determinedly stalking antagonist — the Mulo — is given his name from the term for a Gyspy vampire, this isn’t precisely what he is. Certainly there are vampire-like aspects to his character, but he is not entirely one of them, an example of the vague and undetermined nature of this work. However, the emotional tenor created, the fear of the chase and the ever present night hunter create a dark world of fear similar to that found in vampire-genre novels.

Olson does not rely upon the elements of fear and danger to drive his novel alone; he has populated this dark, mysterious world with characters whose emotions are authentic and ring true. In the unlikeliest romantic pairing Olsen brings together a huge, odorous homeless man who is either brainwashed, insane, or an unlikely hero figure with a brainy, emotionally recalcitrant heroine who may not have it all together mentally and sparks a tender flame between them. This thread of storyline is beautifully touching, and it works; a feat traditionally considered difficult for male authors – congratulations John.

The only weakness worth mentioning is the somewhat contrived presentation of the gospel message. Rather than being woven throughout the text it pops up unexpectedly, thrown into the middle of the story like a heavy rock that makes a large splash before sinking to the bottom of the pool. Flashy and obvious, the message of Christ’s forgiveness is included but affects little of the story.

Providing a more integrated, realistic element of faith in this title are the ongoing references to God and the Holy One from the main characters. References to Biblical history and early members of the human family also serve to establish a Christian worldview.  It’s obvious that Melchi and Hailey are seeking to serve the Lord, though Melchi struggles under the weight of the Law.

Shade is the first novel that Olson set out to write (though not the first published), and of the two I’ve read I think it’s the best to date. The uncertainty, suspense, and driving need to solve the mysteries woven throughout had me through the novel in two sittings. Olson skillfully raised questions and dangled answers like bait before jerking them away again, leaving readers delightfully agitated and striving onward. While we aren’t presented with a cliff-hanger ending and a sense of closure is provided, there are enough open ends and future adventures sensed to leave readers crying, “Give us another one John!”

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