Book Review: The Book of M

the book of mThe Book of M
by Peng Shepherd
Dystopia/Magical Realism
485 pages
Published June 2018

What defines a person? Your experiences? Your personality? The emotional bonds you forge? What happens when you forget? Are you still you if you don’t remember who that is? The Book of M tackles these questions and takes an intimate look at what happens when some people forget but others remember.

We enter on Max and Ory in an abandoned hotel, running out of food and supplies. Max has lost her shadow, which means she will soon start forgetting. Everything. (There are rumors that Shadowless have died because they forgot to breathe or eat.) We learn it’s been a few years since the phenomenon started happening, and flashbacks tell us the story of those early months. Like any good dystopia, it is a world-altering process. Governments are gone because no one remembered to run them. Food and other supplies are dwindling because farmers, shippers, manufacturers forgot what they were doing and how to do it.

But with the forgetting comes – magic, of a sort. Ory comes across a deer in the forest that instead of antlers, has wings sprouting from its forehead. Because someone forgot that deer shouldn’t have wings – and so it happened. Forgetting that something can be destroyed can make it indestructible. Forgetting that you left a place can take you back to that place. Forgetting a place exists can make that place no longer exist. It’s not a very controllable kind of magic. And it’s dangerous – you can never be quite sure what you’ll forget, and you can affect other people with it.

And the forgetting starts with losing your shadow. Ory gives Max a tape recorder, so she can record things she might forget. He posts signs around their hideout to remind her of things, like “Let no one in. Ory has a key.” and “Don’t touch the guns or the knives.” But Max knows she is a danger to Ory, and so while she can still remember enough to function, she runs away.

The book mostly concerns Ory and Max’s journeys across the country; Max trying to find something she’s forgotten, and Ory trying to find Max. The adventure is gripping, heartbreaking, and at times confusing. (Mostly on Max’s end, as magic warps things around her.) There are a few side characters who also have viewpoint chapters. Naz Ahmadi is an Iranian girl training for the Olympics in the US – in archery, which comes in quite handy. We also have The One Who Gathers, a mysterious man in New Orleans who has gathered a flock of shadowless.

If you ever played the roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension, and remember the concept of Paradox, this book reminds me of that a lot. (Is it a surprise that I’m a tabletop RPG geek? It shouldn’t be. I own almost all of the old World of Darkness books, and currently play in a D&D game, and hopefully soon a second D&D game!) Anyway. Paradox. Where doing magic too far outside the bounds of acceptable reality punishes you, so you have to weigh the potential consequences against the magic you want to do.

I really enjoyed this debut novel; it is a very original take on a dystopia, and raised a lot of questions about personality, memories, and what makes a person the person you remember.

From the cover of The Book of M:

Set in a dangerous near-future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. This sweeping debut illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears – an occurrence that science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, the magic comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife, Max, have escaped the Forgetting by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods outside Arlington, Virginia. Their new life feels almost normal, until their greatest fear happens to them, and Max’s shadow disappears, too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away while Ory is out foraging for supplies – but he refuses to give up what little time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, Ory follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged amid the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

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