When I Cast Your Shadow has so much good in it, but also with an equal amount of confusion and perhaps unintentional misdirection. That imbalance makes it a little harder to reconcile the story with a straight up review.
The story’s premise of a loved one returning from the dead, called home because of intense grief and loss, is familiar, and those feelings are played to visceral effect, on the parts of all the family members left behind. Each family member has different struggles in the face of this tragedy, and those difference make for palpable, realistically portrayed conflicts.
We meet Ruby and her twin brother Everett a few months after their older brother Dashiell has died from a heroin overdose. Their father is resigned to having lost his wayward oldest son, but Ruby is distraught, unable to accept that her beloved older brother is gone forever. Her grief and hope/denial are strong enough to bring Dash’s ghost back to her, which lead Dash to make some questionable choices from the beyond that threaten the very existence of his younger siblings. The subsequent problems raise suspicions with Everett, who never trusted his older brother’s intentions while he was alive, and is more suspicious now that he’s dead and hijacking Ruby’s body for long stretches of time.
These manipulations, or predations, by Dashiell lead the entire family down a road towards possession and worse, and Dash with a choice between destruction or redemption. But many things happen along that road that feel out of place, possibly even from a differently framed story.
The atmosphere of the the supernatural elements as shown did affect the twins and most of the others around the edge who Dashiell forces them to interact with. But with those elements being so far out of the realm of their understanding, rather than freak out and wonder who they could get help from, Ruby & Everett instead turn to keeping secrets from each other and telling lies to everyone else, which causes larger problems for them to overcome later.
The biggest inconsistency for me seemed to be a major shift in the way the character’s ages were presented, which is problematic in more than a few scenes, and disturbing in a few others.
For most of the story, I was under the impression that Dashiell was about 18-19 when he died, and Ruby and Everett were about 12-14. Ruby certainly acted that young for most of the book, with her glowing hero worship of Dash along with her temper tantrums and childishness. All of her behavior from the start came across more as very young 12-year-old rather than the “simple and innocent” girl we are supposed to believe her to be. Being in that frame of mind about their ages became disturbing during a scene where Dashiell has hijacked Everett’s body to have sex with his own pregnant girlfriend, Paige (under the guise of doing Everett a favor even though Everett is not consciously present for the act). The appearance that this was an underaged boy being forced to have sex with an older teen girl definitely placed Dashiell and his intentions in the villain/sociopath column.
That perception also adds an disturbing undercurrent of incest to several interactions between Dashiell and Ruby because of the nature of Ruby’s grief, loss and blind worship that Dash can do no wrong since he’s the greatest human who ever lived, in her mind. She also seems to imply that she can never love anyone else like she loves him, especially since it was her love that brought him back and keeps him with her. It’s not until almost the end of the book that we learn for sure that Dashiell died when he was 22, and the twins are 16, but even with that information solidified, there’s still an undercurrent of temptation and coercion in the elder sibling’s intentions, something that even Everett has a moment of doubt and disgust about when he thinks more carefully about several situations.
Dashiell’s character traits are also presented in a confusing manner. For most of the book, he appears to be selfishly intent on using his living siblings as a means to experience living again, and gain an upper hand on Aloysius, the otherworldly spectre trying to control and coerce him in the limbo-like otherworld he’s stuck in. It’s never clear until the end whether Dash is just messing with the state of things in limbo so he can take over, or if he is just playing games with his siblings because he’s tired of all the rules and bored with being dead.
With Dash’s cruel and manipulative behavior dominating most of the story, and that the objectives of the villainous spirit Aloysius are thoroughly unclear until closer to the end, that makes it tough to find anyone outside of Everett to root for in the story. This leads to a sudden and almost unrealistic shift when we find out Dash’s true intentions, and that jarring repurposing makes Dash’s heroic and noble efforts at the end ring false and unearned.
Everett and the girl he’s infatuated with, Elena, seem to come across the most convincing, even though they both read as though they are 12-13 years old early in the story, and are said to be 16 later in the story. Elena’s attachment to Everett becomes a key element in righting all wrongs and closing all supernatural doors, and that friendship shines a harsh light on the lack of involvement of other friends who might have helped (or hindered) during this feels like an afterthought. There are no connections with friends early on in the story, so their appearance and convenient involvement later feels off.
But those are story and plot problems, which only came to mind when I analyzed it after reading. The writing is what pulls you through the book, in an almost lyrical, magical way. The voices of the characters are different, even the behaviors of Ruby and Everett during times when they are possessed by Dashiell’s ghost have distinctive portrayals and reasons for those shifts that are solidly grounded in story actions. The writing becomes more and more engaging as you read farther into the story, and the emotions, the anguish, anger and loss on the part of Ruby and Everett feel more resonant.
That’s what makes this such a hard review to nail down. The story problems I stumbled with could just be the result of a few editing oversights, and for someone like me, they overshadow the writing. Maybe having the book be first person POV for as many as 8 different characters (including alternate personalities of Ruby and Everett) is what constrained the involvement of Ruby and Everett’s friends, since we never see anything from their viewpoint to let them become more engaged in the story.
The first part of the book is tough jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint (each chapter is told from a first person perspective of a different person, even the different times when Ruby or Everett is under Dash’s control). In the second half of the book the rhythms become smoother and the writing almost hypnotic in the race against time to save the family from fates worse than death.
It’s an intriguing read, and other than the confusion about the ages of the siblings, there’s nothing that throws you so far out of the story that you don’t want to finish it.
A TEENAGE GIRL CALLS HER BELOVED OLDER BROTHER BACK FROM THE GRAVE, WITH DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES….
Haunted by her dead brother, unable to let him go, Ruby must figure out whether his nightly appearances in her dreams are the answer to her prayers―or a nightmare come true…
He’s always been jealous of his dashing older brother. Now Everett must do everything he can to save his twin sister Ruby from his clutches.
Charming, handsome, and manipulative, Dash has run afoul of some very powerful forces in the Land of the Dead. His only bargaining chips are Ruby and Everett. At stake is the very survival of the Bohnacker family, bodies and souls….
When I Cast Your Shadow by Sarah Porter
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Tor Teen (September 12, 2017)