Book Review: The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller

“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart.”

Wow. What a zinger of an opening line, right?

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this book really fulfilled its promise of giving us a murderous, power-hungry protagonist the way that its opening implies. This was definitely one of those books that I enjoyed reading, more or less, but when it comes to rating it, I can’t help but give it a lukewarm verdict.

Before we dive in, let’s take a look at the synopsis for this book, as listed on Goodreads:

“Alessandra is tired of being overlooked, but she has a plan to gain power:

1. Woo the Shadow King.

2. Marry him.

3. Kill him and take his kingdom for herself.

No one knows the extent of the freshly crowned Shadow King’s power. Some say he can command the shadows that swirl around him to do his bidding. Others say they speak to him, whispering the thoughts of his enemies. Regardless, Alessandra knows what she deserves, and she’s going to do everything within her power to get it.

But Alessandra’s not the only one trying to kill the king. As attempts on his life are made, she finds herself trying to keep him alive long enough for him to make her his queen—all while struggling not to lose her heart. After all, who better for a Shadow King than a cunning, villainous queen?”

Despite being called a “cunning, villainous queen” on the back jacket, the main character, Alessandra Stathos, really loses sight of that after the first third or so of the novel. Yes, she begins as a slighted second daughter of a neglectful lord who will do anything to spite her family and seize control of the kingdom. However, once she begins to position herself to take that power, it feels as if she completely loses sight of that goal in favor of being occupied with palace life and the romantic intrigue between herself and the Shadow King, the man she intends to kill in order to take the throne. I never found myself fully convinced that she ever planned on killing him.

Another element of Alessandra’s villainy that makes it fall short is that her motive simply isn’t particularly believable or compelling. Alessandra’s desire to rule the kingdom is repeated often, but never quite explored. She certainly doesn’t want to take over the crown in order to create a better kingdom; in fact, her ruthlessness regarding the subjects of the kingdom and of other kingdoms often trends toward uncritically-examined cruelty. The protagonist here seems to fall victim to the “classic Disney villain” effect: the villain never achieves any kind of believability or audience investment because, quite frankly, a motive of “power for the sake of power” has never been that interesting. Sure, it’s fine that they want to rule the kingdom. But why? What personally led them to that goal? What motivates them to desire it so badly? What happened to them earlier in life that made them so hungry to achieve such power at any cost? With Alessandra, we never really find out why, and the novel suffers for it.

Something else I struggled with while reading The Shadows Between Us was the world-building. Look, I know this is a YA fantasy that leans heavily toward romance. I know world-building isn’t always the first priority in this genre, and I accept that. However, I do usually like to at least be able to somewhat visualize the setting that our characters are traversing. The world of Naxos never fully solidified before my eyes while I followed Alessandra’s journey. Given the naming trends the author took for the people and places of the novel, I think it’s supposed to be reminiscent of Ancient Greece; however, several elements of the castle, where the novel primarily takes place, as well as the fashion and customs seem to indicate Medieval England? This is further complicated by the fact that they also have semi-automatic weaponry and electricity. This mishmash made it quite difficult for me to visualize the world of Naxos.

One thing that I believe the novel gets very right is its central romance. The relationship between the main character, Alessandra, and the Shadow King, whose real name is Kallias, certainly starts off slow, but toward the middle of the novel and its latter half, the sexual tension trends toward a fever pitch, and the developing romance was absolutely delicious to read — borderline steamy, at parts. Coincidentally, as soon as the romance element begins to deepen, Alessandra’s entire plan to kill the king and take his throne seems to evaporate into thin air, thus undermining the novel’s premise of “mean girl plans to commit regicide just for the hell of it”. However, I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for a healthy dose of unresolved sexual tension and romantic pining, so I can’t say that I complained so very much about this direction of the plot.

After all is said and done, I think The Shadows Between Us is a solidly entertaining, if not quite groundbreaking, entry into the YA fantasy genre. I did appreciate the main character’s openness with her sexuality, as well as the fact that she did seem to have hobbies and interests outside of, you know, fluttering over a love interest. I was expecting murder to be one of those hobbies, but I suppose it just wasn’t meant to be.

So — if you like palace intrigue, romance with high stakes, and you’re looking for a quick, easy read, give this book a chance. It might be for you!


Rating: 3 out of 5.


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