I approached the last book of my SPSFC judging team’s ten quarterfinalists with some trepidation. Our extended preview had shown a smooth and engaging prose from author J.D. Robinson, but The Last Shadow opened with a grizzled detective, still struggling to move past the trauma of his wife’s disappearance a decade prior, take on one last unusual case before retirement. And personally, I was just tired of detective stories, especially ones with the same lead as seemingly every other detective story. I was tired of them the first time one appeared in our first round batch, and I wasn’t excited to read another here. Throw in no clear indication that The Last Shadow was actually sci-fi—if you read the blurb, you’ll probably expect urban fantasy, much as I did—and I didn’t expect this entry to make it far in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. So it’s safe to say that what came next was a very pleasant surprise.
The Last Shadow takes place in Boston circa 1991 and features two perspective characters: veteran detective Bas Milius, who takes one bizarre final case before retirement, and Dee, a nonverbal autistic teenager whose secret psychic powers are beginning to manifest beyond her control. When both happen upon an impossible recording of a missing person, it thrusts them into a mystery that promises to radically alter the minds of all who touch it.
As I mentioned, my first impression of The Last Shadow was of a well-written but ultimately dime-a-dozen SFF detective tale. But as I grew into the story, I found myself pulled into the weirdness in a way that invested me in the mystery and led to a generally very fun reading experience. Perhaps some of this is the Boston setting, but there were times where I felt I was in the literary equivalent of an episode of Fringe. There wasn’t a character with the verve of Walter (although there was a Walter—hello, Dee’s foster father!), and the scientific gloss on the seemingly magical happenings was much more backloaded, but that atmosphere of the uncanny came through in a way that really resonated and made this one of my favorite reads of our first-round batch.
Of course, a story can’t live on atmosphere alone, but the characters proved solid support. Perhaps Bas was cut from archetypal cloth, but he was drawn in a way that made him feel increasingly real as the story progressed. And while Dee did have strange abilities that circumvented aspects of her disability—a trope I generally dislike—she was a full-fledged part of the story, with her own goals, abilities, and insights. What’s more, in stark contrast to autism stereotypes, one of her driving motivations was the safety of her loved ones. There were times that the language used to describe her came off wrong, but she served as neither savant or token, and I appreciated her character despite the handful of linguistic missteps.
Even with strong atmosphere and solid characters, so much of a mystery depends on its ending, and The Last Shadow neither distinguished itself nor undercut itself at the close, with a finish that won’t blow any minds—at least, not of veteran genre readers—but serves to complete major plot and character arcs while answering the chief questions driving the mystery. In this way, The Last Shadow parallels most of my favorites from our first round SPSFC batch; I spent a lot of time hoping for an ending that really brought the whole work to another level, but got instead satisfactory.
Overall, despite a tropey beginning and a solid-but-unspectacular ending, The Last Shadow won me over with an intriguing mystery and skilled storytelling that had me increasingly immersed in the weirdness of the strange goings-on. Add solid characterization and (admittedly imperfect, but on-the-whole positive) representation of neurodiversity, and it was perhaps my favorite of our first-round SPSFC entries.
Recommended if you like: Sci-fi mysteries that lean in to the strangeness.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published, Mystery Plot, and most likely New-to-You Author.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: 7.5/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.