Author: DE Atwood
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Length: Novel (240 pages)
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press, Dreamspinner Press (March 6th, 2014)
Heat Level: Mild
Heart Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ 5 Hearts
Blurb: Born female, all Jordan wants is to slip under the radar and live the last year of high school as a boy. His parents and siblings support him, but he’d rather be recognized for his acting and musical talents than his gender issues.
When Shakespeare’s Puck gives him three magical potions—true sight, true seeming, and true love—Jordan discovers being true to himself isn’t as simple as he thought.
Jordan must navigate the confusion of first love, a controversial role in the fall musical, and his transgender identity, while fairy magic creates a net of complications over everything he does. In order to unweave the spells laid over his friends—his supportive older brother, James, his playwright friend, Pepper, and Maria, another transgender student—Jordan needs to understand exactly how far he’ll go to reach his goals of finding true love, true sight, and true seeming.
Review: Jordan awakes one night to find the mythical Shakespearean character Puck in his bedroom. The imp hands him three vials, explaining they are charms of “True Sight, True Seeming, and True Love” – and thereby hangs a tale. Jordan is a female to male transgender high school senior. Today he is auditioning for the school play, hoping to secure the role of Puck in a new play written by junior Pepper Sullivan. Pepper, who has caught Jordan’s eye, wants him to play the role of Viola, a woman whom Puck changes into a man, and Jordan’s gender identity dysphoria kicks in and sends him into a panic attack. He wants to turn the role down, but his growing attraction to Pepper convinces him to soldier on.
When it turns out the girl who originally wanted to play Viola decides to throw a fit, get her mother involved. Turning the play, with its controversial gender and sexuality themes, into a school board contention. Jordan, his brother James, Pepper and her brother Paul, James’s girlfriend Brittany and other cast members, including a gay couple, plot to oppose and defeat what they interpret as bigotry. In the meantime, Jordan accidentally unleashes the True Love serum first on his brother and Pepper and then on one of the gay boys and a girl, Jordan’s personal life, plans for transition, the play itself and Jordan’s transgender friend Maria are thrown into turmoil.
In many ways, this novel is the standard, and isn’t it amazing that we’ve advanced to a point where there is such a thing, story of a teen who is in transition in terms of his or her gender identity. Jordan, who has known he is a boy all his life and whose dysphoria resulted in a suicide attempt when he was eleven, is approaching eighteen and besides living as a boy fulltime is about to start taking testosterone injections. His parents have accepted his identity but are fiercely protective, fearing the sort of hatred and violence so common for transgender youth. What Jordan has not worked out yet is how to interact romantically with his remaining female biology, and that seriously complicates his desire to date Pepper, who does not know Jordan is not biologically a boy yet. So far, the usual transgender coming of age is typical and compared to other books an admirable dramatization thereof.
Where IF WE SHADOWS diverges from typical into extraordinary is in two respects, the framework of the play and its heritage in Shakespeare’s use of gender ambiguity and in the impact of the magical, the emergence of the trickster being Puck and his potions. The literary tribute to Shakespeare is brilliantly done, using the two comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night seamlessly and insightfully, exploring ideas that are relevant as much to the modern youth as more subtly to the Elizabethan poet and playwright. The book made this reviewer appreciate anew his exposure to Shakespeare’s plays and world so he could truly appreciate Atwood’s skill at bringing these elements together to create something new and remarkable.
The potions are more a convenient plat device and connection with the play and its appeal than actually necessary’ the influence of the potions, whose efficacy is in doubt, individually and plurally. The same effect could arguably have been managed through less fantastic circumstances, but the author is a fantasy writer and the use of fantasy just makes the story richer and better in its influence from the play.
As a transgender person, this reviewer found a great deal of truth not only in the process of transition but also in Jordan’s hopes and fears. It is extremely difficult to both be the gender you know you are but also cope with the “inconvenient” reality of what Jordan calls “the bits”. On top of that other relevant issues brought forward, how one can be true to oneself without lying to others, such as Jordan’s concern that he is forcing Pepper to make out with a biological girl without knowing it, and how other people’s reactions can be so unpredictable from moment to moment. The book does not shy away from the fact that potential violence is part of every transgender person’s life, mentioning the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a memorial for people attacked and murdered or who committed suicide purely because their brains’ and bodies’ don’t match.
This reviewer has been impressed with the quality of YA transgender novels that have come out over the past few years. Atwood’s IF WE SHADOWS stands out for its intelligence and its artistry with the use of Shakespearean and fantasy themes.