Some time ago, I received a message from Sarina Dahlan on Twitter. She had seen some of my reviews and wanted me to review her book Shadow Play: Ten Tales from the In-between. So, I bought it on Amazon to read. I’m giving you this information so that you know where I’m coming from when I tell you my verdict on Shadow Play.
It’s now one of my new favorite books of all time.
Shadow Play is an anthology of ten short stories, taking place across the timespan of over a hundred years and featuring places around the world. The stories are told out of order, but they all intersect, even in tangential ways. Weaving in and out is the “In-between”, elements of the supernatural that end up tying everything together. So without further ado, let me dig into what makes this book so good.
Style and Setting
Sarina Dahlan’s writing style plays a huge role in her storytelling. When each individual story only has an average of fifteen pages to establish a plot and characters and setting, every word comes at a premium. Dahlan realizes this and chooses each word with care. Every connotation helps to shape the world a little more. Mood gushes off the page in the most delightful way. Sentences will perform two or three jobs at once, breathing life into the setting while also revealing part of the character we’re seeing the world through.
The figurative language leaps off every page. Every metaphor or simile feels fresh and alive. Instead of relying on cliches, Dahlan uses precise and vibrant language. As a result, she needs only a handful of sentences to establish a setting or character, give us a vivid image, and then describe the relationship to the narrator. It is both efficient and beautiful. Dahlan’s sheer skill with wordsmithing not only makes the reader feel embedded into WWII Bangkok, or a dilapidated San Francisco hotel, but it also makes the rest of the book’s strengths possible.
Each story in Shadow Play focuses on a different character. Sometimes they intersect with other characters directly, other times only in the most distant ways. They each vary: some are old and some are young, some are humble and some are proud. There are men and women from all over the world, with different faiths and priorities in their lives. They each feel like distinct characters, thus making their stories unique and interesting.
With all this variation though, two constants run through them all. First, they each feel like real people. They each feel grounded within this world, and when they are confronted by the supernatural they react accordingly. Second, they’re all likable. Each of them has a strong sense of sincerity and decency at their core, even if they had made bad decisions that now haunt them. It made me want to keep reading about them. I’d love to visit any of the characters again in another book honestly!
There’s no overarching plot to Shadow Play, at least not like in a traditional narrative. As I mentioned before though, each story ends up having some relation or impact on another story in the anthology. It’s told out of order, and I imagine that upon a second reading, the connections will get even stronger.
Even if you don’t catch the connections though, each story on its own is great. At their very weakest, you have an interesting character study. At their best, they’re masterpieces. The first one, “Shadow Play”, blew my mind and left me choking up. From there they range across the spectrum of drama, featuring crime and horror and mystery. I found myself gasping in one story, moved to tears in another. My favorites include “The Bench”, featuring three ghosts encountering each other in Central Park, “Love Me, Tender” a horror story that left chills along my spine, and “The Witch Doctor” which features Pa Mali, probably my favorite character in the entire book.
Across these different kinds of stories, Dahlan shows great skill. She doesn’t overplay her hand with horror; she keeps you guessing at the mystery until the very last paragraph. After reading it through one time, I only want to read it again to catch every detail, every connection, to experience it all again.
Go Read Shadow Play
I feel like I could leave off my review with the above subheading. Shadow Play: Ten Tales from the In-between is both whimsical and profound. It mixes fantasy with reality, and shows the drama that comes from that. If you like any kind of supernatural fiction, you will enjoy Shadow Play, and I can’t wait to give it another read.
You can find Shadow Play: Ten Tales from the In-between on Sarina Dahlan’s website at https://sarinadahlan.com/.
Have you read Shadow Play? What did you think? Leave a comment below with your thoughts, or suggestions on what book I should review next!