Review: Shadow Matter, by S.W. Mayse

Shadow Matter
S.W. Mayse
ISBN 9781989407554
508 pages
Release: November 7, 2023
Publisher: Tyche Books

S.W. Mayse comes with a pedigree, having received the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and the Arthur Ellis Award for Best True Crime for Ginger, as well as another Ellis award for first novel first runner-up for Merlin’s Web. She was also shortlisted for the Georgette Heyer Award for Historical Fiction for her novel, Awen.

Her most recent novel, Shadow Matter, was recently released by Tyche Books.

First, the marketing blurb so you’ll have an idea what this novel is about:

A future recasting of the Orpheus and Eurydike myth that weaves together love, loyalty, and the restorative power of art.

The war is lost. Seren Qasri is on her way home, her memories of the final days of the war a disturbing blur. Her occupied homeworld of Claer is in ruins, her mother is missing, and her lost love Teak Kuhan survives only as an avatar. All Seren knows for certain is that she must report in with her data—information that could force a renegotiation of the peace treaty and free her homeworld.

But Seren’s commanding officers aren’t the only ones who want that data or knowledge of the events buried in her memory. Pursued by ruthless killers, Seren doesn’t know who she can trust.

As her memories of a diplomatic courier’s murder return in fragments, Seren strikes a truce with Tas Damou, the freelance who once betrayed her. They detest each other, but only Damou can help Seren stay alive long enough to carry out her task … and prevent another war from engulfing human space.

I was intrigued by the notion Mayse’s novel is a reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydike myth. This is one of the most tragic of the Greek legends, a story of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to return his lost love to the land of the living. The song Orpheus plays for Hades and Persephone so moves them that Hades grants Orpheus’ petition, upon one condition: that he never turn his head to see if Eurydike follows him until they leave Hades’ realm. At the entrance, wracked with fear she is not behind him, Orpheus turns, and in that moment Eurydike fades back into the realm of the dead. Orpheus spends the remainder of his days lamenting in both song and soul.

This theme has been oft revisited throughout the centuries in various stories. That’s what storytellers do: we draw upon resonate common themes, adding our own flavour and perspective, and hopefully also new insight.

And so given the long history of this tragic tale, I was intrigued by the notion Mayse might create a fascinating twist set in a future, space-travelling story.

However, right from the onset it became clear I would have difficulty tracking the plot of this story, hit as I was with a barrage of information. Mayse creates a world which spans solar systems, peopled by not only humanoid factions embroiled in political and military conflict, but by genetically and cosmetically altered beings. Want a change? Instead of just tattooing your body, or changing your hair colour, why not completely modify your skin? Why not feathers? Or scales? Or iridescent, even colour shifting tattoos? Add a few neural or dermal implants to heighten your senses, or connect you to an intergalactic information system, and you’re good to go. Want a memory alteration? Sure, why not?

Plant yourself a grove of semi-sentient trees that coo confessions of love as you pass. Create yourself a slave guardian chimera: a ferret, a human/animal beast, whatever you can imagine.

And with all this technology and body alteration, cling to the use of a seemingly outdated tablet, except this tablet doesn’t have data chips, it has data beads, colour coded in pretty precious metals.

Travel between planetary systems can be achieved through a mirror drive. Just what a mirror drive is remains unexplained. But be careful, because you may land in the middle of the aforementioned political and military embroglio, the nature of which isn’t ever made abundantly clear, just that it seems to be the usual territorial power claims with the usual wanton collateral damage.

There are too many place names, too many characters, so that every individual from a barrista to a mercenary is given a name, which then becomes a subliminal signal to the reader to pay attention to that individual because they’re important enough to have been given identity. Same with place names. After the first twenty or so you just sort of tune out, turn off, give up. Are we on the same planet? Have we jumped aboard some shiny, sexy space craft and mirrored our way toward another world? Did we remember to wear that lovely silver, silk scarf?

The erstwhile Eurydike character in the form of Seren Qasri, is supposed to be a gorgeous, sylph-like journalist who creates thoughtful, investigative videos and randomly uploads them to broadcasting media. She mourns the death of her lover, who inhabits her life as an avatar in her tablet. She is also being allegedly hunted by Tas Damou, and this person’s identity, although Mayse attempts to create some mystery and drama around him, very quickly became apparent to me. In the interest of preventing spoilers, I won’t reveal who he is, but anyone with any ability to solve mysteries can easily solve this one.

The writing itself wasn’t particularly engaging. Often Mayse wandered off in new-age exposition, losing the reader in completely irrelevant descriptions of this ersatz world she’d created. The character development wasn’t riveting. I found Seren to be a spoiled, privileged, entitled waif. Damou is the dark, flawed stranger. Everyone else is pretty much a gangster, thug, amoral, predictable, narcissistic individual. It became tiresome.

As to the planet-spanning conflict, that was never fully developed, nor woven deftly enough into the plot to have any kind of imperative or driving force. It just hung there like mist, obscuring any real storytelling.

But let’s return to the alleged reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydike myth. The only parallel I could find is one which Mayse herself inserts into the final scene, in which Damou and Seren make the comparison themselves. There is no underworld. There is no negotiating her release from death, not even in a metaphorical sense in Mayse’s plot device of reclaiming Seren’s erased memories. And spoiler alert: Seren doesn’t die again in the end. In fact, it would seem the Seren and Damou are about to go off and live happily ever after in some unknown backwater part of the galaxy. How that ties into the Orpheus and Eurydike myth is quite beyond me.

So, overall, I’d have to say Shadow Matter is pretty much a fail for me. Cut the novel in half, eliminate the exposition, tighten the plot, redefine the homage to Orpheus and Eurydike, or give up on that entirely, and craft truly engaging, real characters we can care about.

Shadow Matter will likely appeal to those who are looking for a space-opera romance with a bit of whimsy thrown in, light reading if you can let the barrage of place and character names become white noise.

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