[Bear with me. No one is quite as surprised as I am that I liked both covers.]
Two hundred years from now, blood has become the most valuable commodity on the planet- especially the blood of aboriginal peoples, for it contains antibodies that protect them from the Plague that is ravaging the rest of the world.
Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi might be immune to the Plague, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe. Government forces are searching for those of aboriginal heritage to harvest their blood. When a search threatens Cass and her family, they flee to the Island, a mysterious and idyllic territory protected by the Band, a group of guerilla warriors, and by an enigmatic energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in. And though the village healer has taken Cass under her wing, and the tribal leader’s son into his heart, the spirit world is angry, and it has chosen Cass to be its voice and instrument …
That’s the summary from my (personal, not review) copy of Shadows Cast by Stars by Catherine Knutsson. Apart from the dystopian aspect of the book, what really drew me in was the full cast of First Nations characters, instead of having them be the (often, disposable) sidekick to the white lead. But (and this is where I feel like I’ve let Steph down), despite the dystopian background, and mentions of “the Corridor” (where the technologically advanced, “civilized” world dwells), “nourishment gels” (instead of actual, natural food), “Searchers” (that hunt people down), and “chips” (that connect people to the UA etherstream), once Cass and her family move to the Island the novel is firmly rooted in fantasy.
This is not to say, however, that the novel does not do very interesting things with the dystopian setting. For one thing, the climax of the novel is pretty much chased by a Searcher, thereby shattering Cass’ illusion of having found a safe space within a magical barrier. For another, writing a protagonist that can heal people as well as commune with the Spirit world, makes it easy to critique the way the natural world figures within a dystopian one. Even before they move, Cass’ father refuses to use plastic, lives off of his land (though that might not have been entirely his choice), and refuses to use nourishment gels. Once on the Island, they are completely cut off from the etherstream, and depend on their own skills and the Band’s for food and nurture. Cass, being a Spirit medium of sorts, brings the natural world to life for readers- so much so that it is almost a character in the book. Knutsson does some interesting things in this regard. She uses popular folk figures from her own background and research, to tell new stories set within this messed up world: the Raven that stalks and tricks Cass but also protects her twin, Paul, the Sisiutl that is incredibly dangerous even outside of the Spirit world, the violent and power-hungry sea wolf, and the dzoonokwa, who are the women of the forest.
As mentioned before, while on the Island, Cass seems to forget about a world outside the magic barrier and embarks on a contained fantasy adventure, complete with friends who accompany her on a quest. But for all the scary forays into the Spirit world*, the novel never loses sight of reality. How dire it is. How historic it is. Choosing protagonists like Cass and side-characters like Cedar, emphasize how very plausible this scenario is. In order to protect their people and their land, the Band has had to negotiate a territory for themselves, despite the fact that they should have the right to live anywhere they damn well please. Sound familiar?
What I really love about this book is that by choosing the characters that she did, Knutsson doesn’t really need an extended metaphor, such as Districts or Factions. Navigating identity for a Métis girl like Cass can be difficult. This difficulty is only underlined in the novel:
Later we’ll both have scars. This is how they’ll know where we came from when we get to the Island, that we weren’t born there, that we weren’t raised native. The Band might open its arms wide to us now, but they’ll never, ever let us forget that we came from the Corridor first.
So, there is no grand metaphor. Not really. You can’t not read a history of oppression into a book like this. Things in her novel are almost as bad as they used to be, and sometimes, as bad as they are. I called Knutsson’s dystopian setting “messed up”, but in actuality, nothing is quite as messed up as real life.
And on that cheerful note, I welcome you all to
the suck-fest of reality dystopia month.
Why You May Like This One: Well-written, complex characters (not just in terms of race, but also in term of who they are and how they instinctively behave). Not all white people are evil, not all First Nations people are awesome-sauce. Also, a pretty new (for me, at least) kind of fantasy is presented to us, as it is based on First Nations stories. The stories and motifs themselves are respectfully handled, IMHO. I also love watching protagonists of dystopian novels stick it to the governing bodies and move from being a displaced and confused victim to an assertive hero- which, obviously, happens here. (Cass is lovely to behold when she loses her temper!)
Why You May Not Like This One: Not (yet?) a “true dystopia“, but the ending of this novel solves, like, a fourth of the issues here. So, there is a sequel being written. Who knows, maybe more than one. (Keep faith, Steph!) I, for one, can’t wait to quiz Knutsson about what she has in store for us in the sequel. Look forward to an interview, you guys!
*It’s funny that Cass keeps getting drawn into a stream of information. And while this stream isn’t government controlled, it is still affected by the people around her and the acts of their ancestors. Often she doesn’t have a choice, and simply must immerse herself into the Spirit World. Consequently, she must find ways to negotiate some real, useful information.