When I Cast Your Shadow is Sarah Porter’s follow up to last year’s Vassa in the Night. If you thought that was dark… well do I have a surprise for you.
When I Cast Your Shadow follows twins Ruby and Everett. Their family was rocked by tragedy when their older brother Dashiell died of a heroin overdose. Their family is haunted by Dashiell. both literally and figuratively. Ruby begins having dreams of her brother where he calls to her from across a river. Dashiell tells her that he needs her help and they can all be together again. She manages to bring Dashiell back to the world of the living but it turns out that during his time in the land of the dead he’s made a few enemies.
The main focus of the novel is the relationship between the three siblings. Ruby and Dashiell’s relationship is complicated and highly toxic. Ruby adores Dash to a fault and will do everything and anything to keep her brother happy. Porter alludes a few times that their love for one another is beyond that of siblings. When Shadow begins and Dash is gone, Ruby and Everett have come to rely on each other more. But the moment their elder sibling returns to the picture Ruby abandons him, leaving Everett alone and hurt.
I can admire what Porter achieves with Ruby. She’s impulsive, loyal (to Dash) and extremely stubborn. Porter doesn’t shy away from how these characteristics can be negative. I found that as the novel progressed I was liking Ruby less and less. The choices that she made were fully in character, and her story arc made sense within the world of the novel. But that doesn’t mean that at times it was frustrating to read. Ruby’s devotion for her brother isolates her from those around her. Her hero worship for Dash makes her susceptible to his manipulation. Though her naivete makes her sympathetic, the levels she goes to to keep her fantasy world alive is both uncomfortable and terrifying.
Her twin brother Everett struggles with his feelings for his brother. Everett loves Dash but doesn’t worship him like Ruby does. Because of this Everett can question his brother’s motives. Everett may be more aware of Dash’s untrustworthy nature, but he’s not completely immune to his abilities. Even Everett finds himself seduced by Dash’s charms, leading him to make some morally ambiguous decisions. Porter manages to create characters who are flawed but wholly human.
Dashiell is an enigma. To outsiders looking in he was the perfect son. Extremely good looking, clever and gifted. But in truth Dashiell tormented those who grew close to him. His father eventually kicked him out in order to protect his two other children. What makes him so interesting is his hyper awareness of his destructive nature. During one of his perspective chapters he describes an encounter with Ruby where he tries to scare her off. As much as he wants to spend time with his sister he’s aware that he may ruin her, just because he can.
Porter’s writing style is gorgeous and vivid. She’s most effective with this in Dash’s dialogue. Where the rest of the characters speak informally Dash’s dialogue is highly structured and poetic. In any other book this would have come off as cheesy, but Porter somehow makes it work. Dash’s speech patterns give him an other worldly feeling. He’s a fairy tale character.
I also loved how his way of speaking infects the other characters. As the book progresses and Dash’s siblings interact with him, they pick up more and more of his terminology. It shows just how invasive this character is and it gives the novel another unsettling level.
The center of the sibling relationship is their nicknames for one another. Dash refers to his younger siblings by a variety of names. Everett becomes Never Ever or Ever for short. Ruby has multiple nicknames: Ruby Slippers, Miss Slippers, Ruby Ru, and the list goes on.These names are very Dashiell and they evoke a sense of children singing eerie nursery rhymes and a malicious childishness. Pay attention to the chapters titles to know not only which character’s perspective you’re getting but exactly what mindset they are in.
When I Cast Your Shadow is a very character driven novel and it really works. But this also means that not a lot of attention is given to the villains. Instead of coming off as characters, the villains were reduced to one dimensional forces that the characters needed to overcome. This is a little bit of a let down because they have such strong backstories. The main big bad Aloysius was a mobster and in death has taken over the underworld. I wish the novel had gone into more detail about that instead of just mentioning it in passing.
I also wish Porter had gone into more detail about the world of the dead itself. It reminded me of a cross between the Upside Down from Stranger Things and the River in the Abhorsen Series. I wanted to know more about the ghosts who were trapped there and why exactly they were trapped there in the first place.
Just like in Vassa, Porter does a lot with very little. In Vassa you got the feeling that there was this whole magical world out there with its own set of rules that no one was talking about. The same can be said for When I Cast Your Shadow, only that Porter has perfected the style further. In this novel the Reader is kept even further from understanding “the rules” and it keeps you in constant state of discomfort. Pair that with some of the intense elements of horror and you have a novel that will stick with you for a long time.
When I Cast Your Shadow is a strange book. Its dark, its uncomfortable and its impossible to look away from. Since I’ve finished this book I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. If you’re looking for something that questions what it means to be human, the way our family ties can affect us for good or for ill with a healthy dose of ghost gangsters then I recommend you check this one out. Port continues to impress me and I’m looking forward to whatever weird story she plans on telling us next.
Check out our vlog review of When I Cast Your Shadow here.