Whatever comes after, The Shadows Between Us takes the cake for a phenomenal first line.
“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart,” the inimitable Alessandra Stathos tells us on page one, unsheathing her gilded dagger of wickedness from the get-go.
Then comes the final nail in the makeshift coffin, the sign that we are about to read the shameless first-person account of a stylish evildoer. Alessandra’s next line: “And they never will.”
After a long YA tradition of rejecting the dark side of the love triangle, to mixed effect, Levenseller does away with the safe option immediately. The Shadows Between Us is entirely free of moralizing Macbeth-style consequences, and the Right Thing in any form, instead preferring to see its main character plot murders, practice tyranny, and ruin reputations in peace.
In a way, it’s liberating.
The Shadows Between Us is fun in a way plenty of YA titles can never be. It doesn’t care a whit what you think about it, and in the meantime engages in girlish delight as Alessandra’s diabolical pieces fall into place. As she goes about seducing the secretive and closely-guarded Shadow King, fully intending to kill him, she doesn’t begin to question her choices because of an epiphany––by all metrics, Levenseller has written a heroine who is epiphany-proof––she simply begins to suspect that the Shadow King likes the way she thinks and is quite possibly unbothered by her body count.
We don’t see much of the kingdom Alessandra’s looking to rule with an iron fist––and indeed, the less the better––but this riotous and raucous 300-page power-play has everything it needs to make for a good time, and squeezes in some levity, light subplots, and fluff besides.
Where this devil-may-care angle gets messy, though, is this villain romp’s attempt to have its own villains. The courtesans (locked tight in a competition with our had over who gets to slay the Shadow King first), feature little enough to be throwaways, and yet, pitifully, aren’t.
The aggressor’s motives are shallow, petty, and profoundly uninteresting, but what really rings false about this mutinous plot is how eagerly Levenseller allows her characters to slip into condemnation. Yes, the Shadow King and Alessandra have discovered a clandestine plot against his life, but, well, you know.
They react indignantly to this admittedly short-lived threat, where Levenseller could have probably made a much sounder character choice if she had given them the bandwidth to coolly acknowledge their rivals’ wants as tandem to their own, before putting out the fire without a second thought.
The Shadows Between Us would have been perfectly structurally sound in the third act without this unnecessary extra pound of intrigue (and soap-operatic last twenty pages) ha the apex just focused on romantic resolution. But Levenseller isn’t quite faithful enough in her pair’s morally grey status to give them a truly selfish, unheroic conclusion. Instead, someone’s life has to be at risk, and the story of these cruel, calculating main characters has to end with a good deed.
To Levenseller’s credit, the truly well-crafted plot doesn’t go neglected as her story stretches to accommodate this one. She somehow manages to make 300 pages crackle like a slow burn, giving these sparring forces reasons to love each other, and every better instinct to turn away.
When the lead-up is this faithful to the characters, it doesn’t matter that it seems like the entire world conspires to get the two of the alone in a room, or that all the court drama Levenseller writes has to quiet for a moment so her leads can bicker. Romance in fast-paced fantasy stories can often feel obligatory, but instead, everything else feels that way, because the substance of The Shadows Between Us isn’t undermined by a kissing interlude.
The romance is the substance. It reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures, and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even throw Alessandra a kiss until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial. The Shadows Between Us as a romance far exceeds it as anything else, and in fact its “YA fantasy” label may even do it a disservice. To some degree, what Barnes and Noble calls “YA fantasy and adventure” is sort of expected to deliver on conflict that isn’t about characters and their feelings on one another, so The Shadows Between Us has to chip in on an assassination/secret identity plot at the very end in order to avoid being minimized. So it goes.
When the book isn’t busy with its love story, or its B-villains, it takes some time to expand the lives of Alessandra’s much-tamer friends, giving them their own romantic exploits and personal scruples to overcome. Levenseller goes all in with these side stories to satisfying effect, giving an element that doesn’t usually have much weight a clear distinction of importance. This is where the real value of her story lies, in things that make you giddy to witness, in the small exploits that make for good fluff.
It isn’t flawless, but there’s undoubtedly merit of some kind in a book that flies by in a day.