Richard Lambert's 2020 debut 'The Wolf Road' was met with huge acclaim, selected in several Books of the Year lists. His follow-up, 'Shadow Town', is the first I am lucky enough to read and I can see why he has been met with such praise. 'Shadow Town' is a sprawling, surreal epic that shimmers with shadows and with images that linger like a dream. It is strange and haunting and impossible to ignore.
Richard Lambert has kindly written a feature on his inspiration for the Dreamers in his story, which you can read here.
Pitched at slightly younger readers than 'The Wolf Road'. 'Shadow Town' centres on unhappy Toby who follows a shadowy character into the mysterious land of Balthasar, enslaved by a cruel Regent who commands the Dreamers to dream his schemes into reality. Toby meets Tamurlaine, a strange and otherworldly girl who has lost her memory. To uncover the mystery of her identity and to get Toby back home, the pair must go on a thrilling journey to the heart of the kingdom of Balthasar, right into the castle of the Regent...
What I was immediately struck by in 'Shadow Town' is Richard Lambert's gut-punch vivid poetic prose. Fluid and flowing, images fly by and draw you in with an immediate power from the opening pages. We follow a shadow. In someways, as a reader, we become a shadow too, leaving our bodies behind as we plunge into Lambert's densely layered and unpredictable narrative.
Balanced with the poetic-prose, is the sensitivity and restraint Lambert shows towards his protagonist Toby and the relationship with his troubled parents; his selfish father and his hippy activist mother. Set in London to begin with, Lambert builds a convincing reality with references to climate protests and the government. There is a real depth of sadness that develops an acute sympathy for Toby, before everything is swept away as Toby stumbles into the startling world of Balthasar. The way this happens is one of the best transitions from real world to fantasy world I have read in quite a while - a surprising jolt from the mundane to the truly terrifying. At first I felt a little discombobulated by this, much like Toby feels. Why have we been taken to this new world? What is Toby's purpose here? I had been so drawn in by Toby's family life that I almost didn't want to be in a new world. But Balthasar is so well-realised that it is impossible not to be immersed in the same way. The world-building feels vast and complex; there is something of Gormenghast about it: strange, unnerving, sprawling and majestic. Everything connects, but in dream-like fashion. There are surreal narrative turns and mysteries that build into twists and meta-twists. One thing I would have liked to have seen is Toby return back to his mother and father, for his experiences to impact our world - seeing the narrative twist back on itself a little more. Perhaps there is a sequel to come because there certainly deserves to be one. 'Shadow Town' is a labyrinthine novel that leaves strange lingering images on your retinas - it is impossible to forget. There are lots of discussions to be had about its themes too.
Arguably, because of its size and complexities, this is a children's novel that fills the gap between MG and YA. Some children may find it too challenging while others will be utterly absorbed by its daring and imaginative feats. One thing is for sure: Richard Lambert is one to watch.
Thank you to Fritha Lindqvist for my copy to review.