Edition 28: Book Review: Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J.M.Lee
Reviewed by Damien Smith
Some three years ago now I recall seeing an open submission that blew my cynical mind. The Jim Henson Company (yes, THAT one) was teaming up with Grosset & Dunlap with an open call for submissions to find an author for a new novel set in the Dark Crystal universe. Brief visions of puppet-inspired literary glory flashed through my mind before the reality of the hugely restrictive (read: perfectly reasonable) submission time frame and the prospect of competing against a myriad of writers with, well, talent for this sort of thing brought me back down to Earth. Fast forward to a few months ago and, having completely put it out of my mind, this lovely if brief volume crosses my path.
Armed only with some tortuous childhood memories of hiding behind cushions while big, ugly birds squawked “Gelfling hmmMMM?” and did horrible things to the cute little almost-people, I delved in with my mind clear (as I refused a re-watch of the movie prior to reading this).
Set an indeterminate period of time before the movie, the narrative follows a young female Gelfling named Naia; a late bloomer who is self-conscious that her wings have not yet sprouted. Naia is part of the Sog tribe—swamp-dwelling, amphibious Gelfling—and longs to explore the wider world like her twin brother Gurjin. Unfortunately Naia, as eldest daughter to her tribe’s maudra (a sort of matriarch), she is predestined to stay in the swamp and learn her tribe’s healing magic so she can one day replace her mother.
One day, however, a soldier of the all-maudra arrives in the village, with the news that Gurjin, a guard of the Skeksis lords in the Castle of the Crystal, has committed high treason and disappeared. Naia, as an immediate relative, must journey across the land to answer for her brother in his absence. On her way, she meets many interesting companions and terrifying creatures, and stumbles across a mysterious curse spreading across the land. Her investigations lead to some horrific and world-threatening implications that would have really shocked me if I hadn’t seen the movie.
Delving into a world as beloved as this one was always going to be a daunting task for any author. I’ll admit for the first quarter of the book I wasn’t honestly feeling it, but I think I was still trying to shake the last vestiges of my pre-conceived notions from my childhood, as not long after, the feeling was right. The attention to detail of the world and the creatures in it, along with the tremendously likable Gelflings and their connection with the world around them won me over.
The story ends at the precipice of a much larger tale, still long before the events of the movie but inexorably linked, with plenty of room for further prequel sequels. Having finished the book so quickly, my biggest gripe was that it was as short as it was. There was certainly plenty of room to stretch the story out to a longer and grander novel; however it is intended for younger readers (ages 12 and up) and children of the 1980s. Also, as the first in what appears to be a series of books, it makes no sense from a publisher’s point of view to pour the whole world into a single volume when a well-written series is an almost guaranteed hit.
The movie isn’t required viewing before reading this, but I’ll definitely be going back for another viewing before a possible reread, to remind myself of the story tie-ins and all the links I no doubt missed. No regrets from me, and I’ll be on the lookout for the next instalments. A great debut novel and a strong start to the series.
Shadows of the Dark Crystal #1 (J M Lee)
Grosset & Dunlap, 2016
Fantasy and Magic
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.