Goodreads: The Shadows Between Us
Published: February 25, 2020
Alessandra is tired of being overlooked, but she has a plan to gain power:
1) Woo the Shadow King.
2) Marry him.
3) Kill him and take his kingdom for herself.
No one knows the extent of the freshly crowned Shadow King’s power. Some say he can command the shadows that swirl around him to do his bidding. Others say they speak to him, whispering the thoughts of his enemies. Regardless, Alessandra knows what she deserves, and she’s going to do everything within her power to get it.
But Alessandra’s not the only one trying to kill the king. As attempts on his life are made, she finds herself trying to keep him alive long enough for him to make her his queen—all while struggling not to lose her heart. After all, who better for a Shadow King than a cunning, villainous queen?
The Shadows Between Us, with its unapologetically cruel and ambitious protagonist, initially seems set up to provide something unique and exciting to the YA market–a main character who is deeply unlikeable and simply does not care. Unfortunately, this is about as far as the novelty of the book goes for me. With an okay but not particularly riveting plot (which leans heavily towards romance, not the political intrigue that the official summary implies) and messages about love and feminism that were are contradictory, The Shadows Between Us does not live up to the caliber of Levenseller’s previous work.
Protagonist Alessandra may be the toughest sell of the novel for many readers. She’s manipulative and mean (and literally willing to kill to get what she wants) but presents these characteristics as confidence and empowerment. Admittedly, I hated her as much as any other reader might, but I thought writing a protagonist who is objectively a horrible person was a bold move for YA; at least, it’s different and not like 50 other YA books I’ve read before.
So my real problem is that Alessandra’s terribleness isn’t really nuanced. There is a lot of potential for The Shadows Between Us to explore her–and the king’s–awfulness and the reader’s relationship with it. After all, the book is a romance; so what does it mean if readers can actually root for Alessandra to get her man, actually root for these two cruel people to have a happily ever after when that ending means they’ll be in power over vulnerable people? The book doesn’t deal with these questions. And while I am in general of the belief that many YA books can stand to be a bit more subtle with their themes than they are, The Shadows Between Us doesn’t do much with its own themes at all.
At the worst times, the book is completely contradictory. One of Alessandra’s defining personality traits, besides her cruelty, is her sexual openness. She’s had a number of sexual partners, is proud of it, and is clear about wanting and enjoying sex. She dresses provocatively (per the standards of her culture) on purpose in order to attract the attention of men. Frequently the book suggests Alessandra is some type of feminist warrior; among her goals once she becomes queen are things like making sure it doesn’t matter if women are virgins when they marry and making sure women have power equal to men. This is interesting in the sense that it seems like Alessandra has some redeeming qualities; she’s apparently not entirely a jerk. Yet then Alessandra admits (and the reader has already seen anyway) that she uses men sexually for both pleasure and money, then discards them when she has no more use of them. She calls this “female sexual empowerment.” Maybe Alessandra actually believes this, but the reader gets very mixed messages about whether she should be admired for her sexuality and her refusal to be ashamed or not.
Plot-wise, the book can be engaging. It did take me a lot longer to read, a few weeks, than I normally take for YA books because I kept picking up other novels instead, but when I did get back to The Shadows Between Us, I enjoyed it more or less. I didn’t really care about the romance, but I wanted to know how things were going to end. I also enjoyed the small magical aspects and learning more about the mysterious king as the book progressed.
In the end, the book is fine, but there are a lot of other books I like a lot more, so this isn’t going to be high on my list of “things I recommend other people read.” The horrible main character is a point in favor of the story, I think, contrary to reviews I’ve seen where people hated the book because they hated Alessandra. But Levenseller could have done a lot more with Alessandra and her horribleness to really make this story vivid and thought-provoking.