Although I don’t tend to read post-apocalyptic as much as some other speculative fiction subgenres, Peng Shepherd’s first novel caught my eye before its publication last year—long before The Book of M began garnering acclaim by appearing on numerous Best Books of 2018 lists, becoming a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy finalist, or more recently, winning the Neukom Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction. From the moment I read its description, I was intrigued by the idea of examining the connections between memory and identity by exploring what could happen if people around the world suddenly began losing their memories. Having now read it, I think it will appeal to those more interested in those particular aspects and characters’ journeys—both literal and metaphorical—than those who mainly want answers about why and how such a thing might happen, and despite having a few technical quibbles, I found it compelling, unique, and…well, just plain memorable.

The event that changed the world began on Zero Shadow Day, which occurs a couple of times a year in some parts of the world when the sun aligns directly above specific latitudes on Earth. This position causes people to temporarily “lose” their shadows, but on this particular Zero Shadow Day in Pune, India, one man’s shadow did not reappear when all the others did. At first, watching this man’s movement with no mirroring shadow seemed magical, and as other individuals in India also began losing their shadows, many people wished they too could experience this miracle for themselves.

But the wonder ceased on the fourth day: the day the man failed to recognize his own brothers, who had been his near constant companions since his shadow disappeared. Soon after, it became apparent that everyone without a shadow was losing their memories—and the longer they remained shadowless, the more they forgot.

People forgot their friends and family, how to speak and read, where they lived, that they needed to eat and drink. They no longer remembered that fire was dangerous, that flowers didn’t communicate, that deer didn’t have wings. And when they forgot something strongly enough, their faulty recollections became reality: they could walk through a blaze unharmed, plants could provide them with directions, and bucks with wings in place of antlers appeared.

No one was able to figure out why some people lost their shadows and memories or how to prevent this fate, and this phenomenon continued to spread. Eventually, it came to the United States, where it affected Naz, an Iranian archer training for the Olympics in Boston, and Max and Ory, a married couple attending a wedding in Arlington at the time. The topsy-turvy new world created by the Forgetting turned all their lives into an endless struggle for survival, resulting in Naz journeying to Washington, DC, and Max and Ory doing their best to feed and protect themselves as the last of the wedding party residing in the hotel.

Then Max loses her shadow. Fearing she will become a danger to her husband—and what will happen she inevitably forgets him—she sneaks away while her most important memories are still intact, leading Ory to set out to find her. On their separate quests, they hear rumors of The One Who Gathers in New Orleans and are drawn to find him—for reports indicate he may hold the key to retaining one’s memories.

The Book of M is one of those books I’ve been finding difficult to review and describe because, as much as I enjoyed and appreciated it, I realize it has imperfections and elements that some may have a harder time with than I did: it’s overlong, it has logical issues, and it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. Plus it didn’t have any characters that I loved (even though I did rather like reading about a couple of them!) and the prose was uneven since it could be unnatural and exposition-heavy at times but beautiful at other times.

Yet the storytelling, overall concept, and twist at the end are all superb, and The Book of M is such an imaginative, magical, indelible book that it winnowed its way into my heart regardless of its clearly visible flaws. It’s one of those books I could hardly stop thinking about after finishing, considering how the various pieces fit together. It’s a book that leaves a permanent mark on the mind, and it belongs on my bookshelf for always.

The Book of M is a novel that provides more questions than answers: though characters wonder, it never so much as hints at why people suddenly lost their shadows and memories, why this happened to some people and not others, or why and how it spread around the world. Given the implication that the connection between memory and shadow is tied to the legend of Chhaya, created as a shadow with all her creator’s memories, I saw it as a near future, post-apocalyptic fairy tale that isn’t about examining why this magic happened but how it affected individuals and society. Readers are left to decide how to interpret the rich symbolism and allegory that imbues its pages, all while examining the intersection of memory and identity—how much of who we are is tied to our remembrances and what is lost without them—and the power of names.

It does this by following four characters whose lives are (eventually, in some cases) bound together in various ways, two with their shadows and memories intact and two who have forgotten pieces of their pasts. Naz, the Olympic hopeful, is my favorite because of her grit, determination, and bond with her sister—and it’s also her viewpoint that first offers the clearest picture of the beginnings of the shadowless, starting with media coverage of the first of them in India. After Naz, I most enjoyed reading about The One Who Gathers, an amnesiac who had forgotten much about himself in a terrible accident and never recovered those memories, though he did retain his shadow and post-accident memories. Max’s perspective is narrated entirely through tape recordings she made after she lost her shadow and set out on her own, fearing what her worsening memory loss will mean for her husband, Ory. Though I didn’t always find her voice natural, even considering she was addressing Ory and it made some sense that she’d explain so much given she was grappling with memory, her story is fascinating and an important part of the novel—a contrast to Ory, who I found dull since he was largely focused on finding Max and didn’t have any particularly compelling characteristics or internal conflicts.

Even viewing it as a tale about these four people built upon myth, there were some aspects that didn’t quite seem to fit to me. For one, it seemed as though the world should have been even more chaotic than shown considering magical memory loss led to vanishing cities and a giant Statue of Liberty rampaging through New York City. Although there was disorder, it seemed somewhat contained and orchestrated since I would have expected travelers to run into more inconveniences related to changing landscapes. I also thought some of the ways magic was used toward the end didn’t entirely make sense, although I could also see a few possible reasons it worked the way it did.

However, none of that was enough of a distraction to prevent me from cherishing a creative story well told—and The Book of M is exactly that.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read or Listen to a Sample from The Book of M