Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann

“Love can be a hell of a draw, the emotional holy grail. But love also exposes our flaws, can even draw out the worst in us. People want to perform heroic deeds, commit flagrantly dramatic acts for love. What they don’t realize is that the daily grind is what is required. Instead of a single extraordinary act—slaying the dragon, throwing yourself in front of a bus—it is the repetition of small gestures over a course of years that makes love work. And if I am terrible at anything, it is that sort of consistency.

The problem wasn’t that I became too used to Abby, too easily persuaded that there might be something better. The problem wasn’t her. It was the person who was supposed to be there, who had been swallowed up by that belt of trees surrounding Blackburne, who in his absence had become the dark matter in my personal universe, mysteriously exerting his effect on me in ways I hadn’t thought possible.

Beth said I was a lost soul while Giselle called me a fucking asshole, both of which, when you think about it, are pretty much the same thing.

I didn’t plan to read two novels in a row about missing men and the late-twentysomething boy-men tormented by their absences. It just happened to work out that way.

It also allows for some eye-opening contrasts. The first novel, The Destroyersby Christopher Bollen, featured a good story from an obvious talent with a fatal blind spot for fever-spiked figurative language.

The second one, a debut novel, features a story every bit as good. And a reading experience undiminished by distracting everybody-look-at-me prose.

Matthias Glass, after rising, crashing and burning as a New York novelist and fashion model’s boyfriend, decides to lick his wounds with a teaching gig at the Blackburne School in rural Virginia, where he was a student a decade before. There, he confronts the real open wounds in his life: the disappearance of his roommate and best friend, Fritz, in their senior year; and the disruption of his budding relationship with Fritz’s twin sister, Abby, in the wake of Fritz’s vanishing act.

The story shifts between the present and Matthias’s high-school past, with both times showing how hard it can be to manage the mercurial, sometimes malevolent motives and behaviors of teen boys in the pressure-cooker environment of prep school. Cheating, drug dealing and (possible) suicide all come into play as Matthias digs ever deeper and develops a few allies along the way.

The upshot of both narratives—power and money talk loudest—comes as no surprise. But the plot’s twists and turns are well-managed as the novel moves from a sluggish start into successively higher gears. By the third act, Shadow of the Lions shifts from a moody study of character and economic class to an outright high-stakes mortal-danger thriller.

There are some unintentionally farcical turns in Shadow of the Lions that tempt the reader to roll their eyes—most notably, the sudden, uncomic appearance of a Western rodeo clown in a story largely about somber Eastern Seaboard sophisticates—but for the most part, the large cast and the parallel narratives are handled in refreshingly straightforward style.

Matthias Glass is an appealingly flawed protagonist, persistent and yet not quite heroic, in the midst of wealth but not quite of it. And while the members of the supporting cast vary in depth and dimension, most are handled plausibly and sympathetically.

And as far as the less sympathetic characters go, well ….

There are two questions any successful crime novel must answer in the affirmative: Do the villains feel justified in what they do, and is that justification spelled out at satisfying length?

For Shadow of the Lions, the answers are the right ones.

Eagle Harbor Books: Buy
Amazon: AU CA UK US

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