The Shadow Order book cover for review
Book Reviews

The Shadow Order | Book Review

By Rebecca F. John (pub. Firefly Press, 2022)

Throwing out her arms and tossing back her head, she shouts again. ‘I know what happened! If anyone can hear me, listen carefully. It’s a game. It’s the Unified Government’s game. They’re playing with our lives. They shifted the shadows. I can prove it. I can prove it and they’ll kill me for it. Listen!’ Her voice catches as she strains to bellow as loudly as possible. Effie feels an ache in her own throat, imagining the woman’s vocal chords stretching and snapping. ‘LISTEN! Find the orrery!’

And so Teddy, Betsy, and Effie are thrust into the very heart of a mystery; why have there been sightings of things that don’t belong in the Britannic Isles? Why did everyone’s shadows suddenly change? And what is the Unified Government actually up to inside the Observatory?

The city of Copperwell is a strange one that The Shadow Order eases us into over the first few chapters. Plenty of stories would throw you immediately into the action, but here we follow Teddy going about his day and his shift at the docks. The story takes its time to introduce you to the various aspects of the city, and it’s all the better for doing so.

A year before the start of the book, people’s shadows shifted to show their inner selves. Shortly after that, the Shadow Order was enacted, making it illegal to go outside in the daytime, or show other people your shadow (or look at theirs). These rules are enforced by a violent Constabulary, helping the Unified Government rule by fear.

After meeting Teddy, we’re introduced to Betsy and Effie. The three of them are still in their early teens and are best friends, despite how different their backgrounds and personalities are. Betsy is an orphan and the most forthright, with bold ideas, leaping into action without always thinking things through. Effie is intelligent and considered, a rich girl who craves the freedom to just be herself. Teddy is honest and dependable, and although he is also an orphan, has a found family in his fellow dock-workers.

It’s a desire to see the sun rise that leads the three of them to hide out on the roof of the Observatory, from where they watch the wild-haired woman shout her warning before she is dragged away. Her shadow – something they are reluctant to look at at first – shows a woman bold, unbroken…and undoubtably telling the truth.

So begins their quest to discover what’s really going on in Copperwell; a quest that will feature tense heists, a number of daring chases and getaways, scientific intrigue, a reconnection with nature, and a fight against tyranny.

Along the way, they will find adult allies, but this story remains very much the children’s tale. It was nice to have older characters featured that actually believe the kids, even though their claims seem wild, and who can be helpful and supportive without taking charge or stealing the show.

The setting is a sort of steampunk-lite dystopia (at least, within Copperwell, which geographically reminds me a lot of London), dominated by issues of class and gender – the lower class workers are looked down upon, while the Women’s Enfranchisement group is fighting for voting and property rights for women.

The city itself is surrounded by canals, making it easy for the Unified Government to cut off access to the rest of the Britannic Isles, and divided into areas such as Factory Quarter, Swindler’s Quarter, and Royal Quarter. John’s descriptions give a perfect feeling of the grime and desperation, though with pinpoints of light and camaraderie between the down-trodden.

The children portray a sense of hope, even through their struggles and doubts. They each have something that they can give to the fight, whether that’s a connection, a special skill, or a specific understanding. What all of them bring however, is bravery and a sense of justice that refuses to be kept down, becoming an inspiration to those even much older than themselves.

This story isn’t just about growing up and finding your own way in the world, but also about how knowledge is power that allows you to recognise unfair systems and fight against them. It’s about loyalty to good causes, and of doing what’s right rather than what’s easy – even when the cost can be high. And it’s about working together, rather than allowing fear and corruption to tear us apart.

The book deals with some darker themes, but in an accessible way, allowing readers to come to conclusions alongside the characters so we’d recommend it for readers aged 10+. Amazingly, The Shadow Order was John’s first children’s book after writing a number of adult books – and they’ve crossed that boundary with ease!

If you want to follow Betsy, Effie and Teddy in their fight, you can get a copy of The Shadow Order at the link below.
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Looking for more books about fighting the good fight? If so, you can see our previous activism book reviews here.