fantasy novels

Book Review: Map of Shadows by J.F. Penn

My review of Map of Shadows is a fairly simple one, but it highlights a few terribly important things.


To start, here is the litmus test for a great story: when you are in bed at night, reading, and your spouse elbows you in the side and says, “Shut UP.”


“What?” you answer, confused about what’s happening, half of you still trapped in the story you’ve fallen into.


“You were SHOUTING,” she says. Then she rolls over, laughing because she knows what all this means: that SHE has found a new story, too, because when I’m done with it, it’s her turn.




The above is rare for me. As a writer myself, I have a marked tendency to pick a story apart, to dissect each sentence after reading it and to ruthlessly VIVISECT the plot AS I read it. I’m like a mad scientist, who in churning out his own little monsters has ceased to view the other creatures out there as anything other than items of academic interest. Just things to be learned from or things to be despised, depending on how competent those creatures’ own “mad scientist” parents are (or are not).


And then, in a beautiful – and all-too-rare – moment, one of those creatures not only meets your gaze, but stares you down and then SPEAKS to you. You are reminded that these creatures, these little monsters that have sprung forth of others’ minds, can sometimes rise to be more than things to be examined. They can be extraordinary, full of wonder and light and genuine magic.


Map of Shadows, the first book of the Mapwalkers series, is a story like this.


I went into Map of Shadows with the concern that I ALWAYS have when reading a story by someone I know and respect, because there is nothing worse than telling a friend that their latest is anything other than magnificent. Ms. Penn and I are not the kind of buddies who hang out – or even talk regularly – but she has interviewed me a number of times for her (superlative) writing podcast, The Creative Penn. I count those interviews as among the most fun I have had, and Ms. Penn as one of the best hosts, who brings you not only onto her show, but into her heart.


Now, I’m not just wandering around aimlessly here. I mention The Creative Penn because in the same way that she opens her heart and mind and her great understanding of the written word to those lucky people in her audience (and those luckier people whom she hosts on her show) so she has opened that heart and mind and understanding to those lucky people who read Map of Shadows.

Map of Shadows, like The Creative Penn and the best books and like Ms. Penn herself, is simply MAGIC.

Shadow Cartographers. Maps of Shadow. Labyrinths where death makes its home. Places that have not truly disappeared from the world, but which most certainly HAVE become lost… and become darker in the losing. Fiendish monsters torn from dark imaginings and even greater monsters embodied in the men and women who bear sad resemblance to our own darkest selves.


All this and more is on full display in Map of Shadows, but above all that, this book is about connections.


It is a story of a woman who finds that this world we enjoy is not the ONLY world, and perhaps not even the most important or more powerful. But as her understanding of the world(s) grows(s), so too does her ability to bring real betterment to that world.


Map of Shadows is the story of a woman who chooses to reject a life of relative comfort for a life of danger, and does so for nothing more nor less than the tiny chance that she will find a family she thought lost to her.


Map of Shadows is the story of a woman who has few connections to a world which – as it has for so many of us – has grown cold and distant and even alien; but who then finds those connections in the form of new friends who are willing to echo her sacrifices and then add some of their own. It is the story of hopelessness found in dark places, but then brought back to the light.

Map of Shadows is the story of… us.

We each make maps of our lives. Perhaps none do what our heroine accomplishes – drawing places into being simply by “mapping” them, or traveling the length and width of the universe(s) in an instant – but we draw our homes, our places of comfort; our “war zones” wherein we find things ranging from angry bosses to that grocery store clerk who for some strange reason manages to terrify us every time she weighs our grapes (yes, this is about me); and we draw the outer edges of our worlds, knowing that beyond them danger dwells.


And yet we go. We travel to the boundaries of our lives and comforts and then – as Sienna shows us how to do – we move past those boundaries, and into shadow – there to discover that we have, somehow, brought our brightness with us.


Sienna is all of us, and in her we find what every good Mapwalker MUST find: a road to travel; a quest to undertake; a guide or two to help us along the way, and, in the end, our hopes and dreams.


Thank you, Sienna, for showing an extraordinary path; and thank you, Ms. Penn, for your extraordinary stories and for the joy and light they bring – especially Map of Shadows, which occupies a new spot on my “favorites” bookshelf.



Posted by in Book Reviews, Life Advice