A year ago, Eric Mayfair was in the hospital, with only his mum Jhardine and best friend Tim to keep him company as he slowly, painfully, succumbed to a terminal heart condition. Except that when it finally came time for him to die, neither one had the emotional strength to remain with Eric. As a result, neither witnessed his unexpected, miraculous rebirth—not that Eric’s life improves any afterwards. Because a year later, Eric still has no explanation for the uncanny occurrence, and it’s scarcely a blessing to either him or his mum: Jhardine supports both of them by working a job she hates, because Eric can’t find, much less hold a job. Neither has any sort of love life, and Jhardine soon discovers that she now has health problems of her own. All Eric knows is that he now feels a new heart beating inside his chest, a black, dark thing that seems responsible for his heightened senses, and other…things. And when Tim is brutally murdered, monsters and evil powers begin to appear in Willingsley, and things go to Hell—fast.
So begins Heartsnare, book one of The Umbraverse by Steven B. Williams. As Eric investigates the mystery surrounding Tim’s death, he meets and befriends Alistair, a fellow “shadow former,” and finally learns the cause and reason for his own rebirth, and that there are other worlds besides his own. He learns too that he is now caught in a war, a battle between shadow formers and “umbra”—living shadows that kill and then possess people—a fate that has befallen Tim, and soon others in Willingsley.
Heartsnare reads as compulsively as a Stephen King novel: Williams’ characters are all ordinary Yorkshire working-class folk, going about their mundane lives, trying to make ends meet, navigating complicated love lives and all the rest of life’s daily nonsense. It is they who bear the brunt of the fallout resulting from the war between light and darkness that has fallen upon Willingsley. But for all the darkness in this novel (and it is plenty dark), there is also humor to offset it—although sometimes the banter between Eric and Jhardine seems more appropriate between a gay man and his straight gal pal, rather than a son and his mum. (Note to American readers: Mind you, the dialogue is written in a true-to-life Yorkshire dialect, and there’s nowt you can do about it love, just keep eating your crisps while you read, there’s a good lad.)
Heartsnare owes as much to A Wizard of Earthsea as to Stephen King. The idea of living shadows created by immortal wizards, who then must defeat their shadow-selves, is not new to fantasy fiction, whether literally or metaphorically. And when their magic is powered by shades to begin with, then it becomes even more difficult (if not impossible) to sort out the angels from the devils. And without giving away too much of the climax, Eric can only defeat the Tim umbra when he realizes who he is truly fighting.
Heartsnare is completely self-contained as a story, but there are plenty of questions to explore in further books. The shadow formers’ system of magic will surely be fleshed out (so to speak) in further volumes, and an equal number of mysteries surround Jhardine as her son. So just as A Wizard of Earthsea begins a series of acclaimed fantasy novels, this book is only the beginning of Eric’s quest—for mastery of his powers, finding answers to the questions of his life, and possibly even love.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske