First published in April of 2011, British author Ben S. Baxter’s debut novel ‘As The Shadows Fall’ was set to be the first instalment of three for ‘The Shadow Dance Trilogy’.  Published via the near-self-publishing outfit Blue Cloud Publications (an imprint of Black Leaf Publishing), who deliver books on a POD basis, with upfront fees for editing, proofreading, an ISBN etc.  Basically, behind the cloud of a publishers name on the book, this is still a self-publishing venture – plain and simple.  And there’s certainly no shame in that.

DLS synopsis:
On the 3rd September John Fog’s life comes crashing to a halt.  That night, his wife and young son plummet to their deaths in a horrendous car accident.  Or so that is how it seems.

Before the night of that fateful accident, John had been happy.  Well, as happy as you can be when you possess the somewhat unwanted ability of being able to see the dead.  He loved his wife and son with all his heart, and now that their lives have been so viciously cut short, he needs further answers.  Answers such as where had his wife been going on that tragic night?  Who had she been to see?  And was it really just an accident?  But out of all the ghosts that have visited him after their deaths in search of his help, the two young lives he so craves to see again have never visited.  Why is this?

Meanwhile, the young police detective Olivia Boardman has her hands full with the sudden emergence of a psychotic serial killer.  Young girls are being brutally attacked, raped and murdered.  Vicious attacks that bring back haunting memories to the gutsy young detective.  Memories that scream from a time long ago.  Surely after all these years it can’t be coming back to haunt her again?

With the help of the recently deceased, John Fog must get to the bottom of these murders and somehow uncover the real truth behind the deaths of his family.  As much as it cuts deep inside of him, he must pry into his wife’s recent past to see where it all began to go wrong; where the pieces will hopefully begin to slot together.  And where the black cloud of death will surely be waiting once again…

DLS Review:
The first thing that instantly smacks you in the face with Baxter’s certainly intriguing debut is the stone-cold amateurish look to the book.  The inner text is little better, with an appalling level of (or lack of) formatting throughout the entirety of the book - heavily disrupting the flow of the story.  Upon beginning the tale, it’s not long before you encounter your first niggling-little typo.  For a self-published tale, without any professional proofreading or otherwise, the odd typo here and there is to be expected.  However, these annoying little errors do become a little too frequent, and ultimately lead to undermining the final quality and impact of the story.

The tale itself is certainly a slow-burner, with characterisation built up on a gradual but reasonably thorough basis.   Somewhat confusingly, the tale is written in the first-person-perspective of the principal protagonist – John Fogg.  However, at stages throughout the tale, this character isn’t even present in the scenes (not including the flashbacks of course).  This somewhat surreal ‘floating’ gesture from the author may well have been intentional (which is damn clever I must admit), or just a happy fluke of undirected writing.  Whichever it is, the resulting mind-trip gently pushes the reader away from this first-person-perspective, as if they themselves are now one of these lost ghosts quietly watching from close by.

Further bizarre aspects crop up throughout the somewhat short tale, such as the completely baffling shifting of perspective towards the principal character (and narrator), with mashed-up sentences such as “I felt himself saying”.  The frequency of this builds throughout the length of the novel, until it is almost a given constant, throwing up a desperate yearning for clarification from the reader.  This is clearly an elaborate ploy from the author pointing towards an (as of yet undisclosed) depth to the trilogy.  However crafty this literary play may be, it doesn’t help with dismissing the amateur stigma that remains firmly embedded within the text.  For such a cunning perspective-shifting prose to successfully work, the text of the entire story must be flawless in its delivery, without a hint of a typo, bad grammar, or indeed poor formatting.  Alas, all of these are very much a part of this publication, and as such, the cunning wordsmanship slips into clumsiness rather than reflecting intentional word play.

Just as puzzling is the constant overstating of the principal protagonists full name, making the text begin to feel more like a missing persons appeal than that of a piece of mysterious supernatural fiction.

Standing back from the numerous self-publishing aspects of the novel and you’re greeted with a surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable read.  The author clearly has something going for him with his writing.  Even in the slower sections of the book (which are perhaps a little too frequent) the novel plods on with a comfortable flow that keeps the reader engaged with the characters and the overall mystery that surrounds the plot.

Peaks of gritty and engaging action are scattered throughout the meandering storyline; emerging like sharp thorns through a thin quilt, to shock and surprise.  Baxter clearly has the ability to swamp a scene in atmosphere when he puts his mind to it, but sadly this is not always the case.

The storyline itself reads as a diluted impression of Gary McMahon’s ‘Pretty Little Dead Things’ (2010) mixed with loose elements from serial killer thrillers such as Shaun Jefferies ‘The Kult’ (2009).  What transpires is a more subdued and emotionally heavy read, which puts more weight on the characters emotional journey than the backdrop of the much more energetic ‘serial killer on the loose’ plotline.

At times, certain elements to the storyline take on too much of an easy route; as if the author couldn’t be bothered to edge the storyline along a more intricate and involved path.  Instead, the tale ticks over with its own pace, hitting the required bases in a strangely subdued and indirect manner, until its final outcome is reached and the mysteries are tied off.

The combination of dual plotlines (the truth behind the accident as well as catching the serial killer) is a strong starting point for maintaining the momentum of interest, but sadly never really interweaves itself to form a solid, all-encompassing finale.  This again is a little bewildering to say the least; but does lead to a great amount of after-thought and backtracking – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

All in all, the novel is clearly a self-published work of love for an amateur author who undoubtedly has a wealth of potential underneath the clumsiness of his first publication.  Without rushing to the next instalment, for which similar levels of problematic text would surely follow, it may well be advantageous to take a step back and perhaps explore short, sharp and more impactful writing via short stories before returning to more ambitious and altogether challenging projects such as this.

The novel runs for a total of 201 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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