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The Shadow Chaser
Dylan Birtolo
Inkwater Press, 278 pages

The Shadow Chaser
Dylan Birtolo
Dylan Birtolo lives his life as a journey with many interesting and varied paths. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied biology, computer science, and creative writing. In the handful of years since graduating, he has worked as a biology research assistant, a software engineer, a veterinary technician, the author for a weekly web-based publication and a martial arts instructor. He currently lives in St Paul, Minnesota, where he pursues a myriad of passions.

Dylan Birtolo Website
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A review by David Hebblethwaite

Darien Yost wakes one evening, having passed out, with a ravenous appetite and no memory of what happened. Is his friend Ellen right that this is a hangover? Is it, as government agent Michael Olson suggests, the result of some contamination in the area? Or could it be something else entirely? Events suggest the last, when a mysterious and beautiful woman named Alyssa invades Darien's dreams and then turns up in reality -- and when Olson's men make an attempt on his life...

At first, the title of Dylan Birtolo's debut novel does not seem to make much sense, for Darien spends much of the book's length being chased rather than doing the chasing. It's also well into the novel before we discover exactly what is going on: Darien is one of a number of people who can change themselves into animals. Others include the Arm of Gaia, a group of shapeshifters to which Alyssa belongs, whose stated aim is to help their kind; and Richard, who ploughs his own, independent furrow. Most shapeshifters can change into only a few creatures, but Darien is special, because he can change into any kind of animal. Unfortunately for him, that makes him of particular interest to Olson -- and to the Shadows, a group of evil shapeshifters.

The Shadow Chaser is not without its flaws. Birtolo's prose is never actually bad, but neither is it particularly engaging. This can be a problem especially in the book's earlier stages, when Darien is trying to find out what is happening to him: his passage between locations becomes obscured, to the point where I sometimes had to skip back to check what had happened.

Something else which I found difficult to understand was Darien's relationship to some of the other characters. Earlier, I referred to Ellen as his 'friend', but she could be his girlfriend -- it's never made clear. If she is the latter, then she certainly doesn't mind Darien spending time with his ex, Susan, as he does for most of the book! Whatever the case, this criticism is quite trivial. A more serious problem is the pacing. The author spends perhaps too much time on the build-up to Darien's discovery of his abilities, and certainly not enough time on his mastery of those abilities and plan to fight the Shadows. As a result, the ending feels somewhat unearned, as though Darien gains control of his powers at only the last minute, just in time to defeat his enemy.

Be that as it may, Birtolo gives us an interesting variation on the shapeshifter theme, which is not (for the moment) bogged down in too many of the 'animal urges' clichés you so often get in this kind of story. The ending of The Shadow Chaser sets things up nicely for a sequel or two (or more), and it will be worth keeping an eye on what happens next.

Copyright © 2005 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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