The Book of M is the first book by Peng Shepherd and it’s hard to classify. It’s sort of fantasy due to there being some magic. It’s kind of science fiction as it examines the human condition in a near future where human civilization has collapsed. It is definitely dystopian, see previous sentence about the collapse of human civilization. And urban in the sense that a good chunk of the book happens in urban centers. It has romantic themes as two of the main characters are a married couple and much time is spent establishing their relationship and love for each other, but I wouldn’t call it a romance. It is all of these things and a treatise on memory and identity.
The book bounces around in time with the main division being before and after the event that obliterated human society, but also in a character’s personal time line too. Sometime, in the near future, a man in India loses his shadow. No matter the light source or angle, he no longer casts a shadow. At first this seems miraculous but then a sinister truth emerges, our shadows and memory are linked. Losing one’s shadow also means that one will lose their memory. Even to the extent that a person will forget that they need to eat to live. There is no known cause and it seems to be random who is affected and who isn’t, sometimes entire cities will lose their shadow at the same time. Some are able to resist the forgetting longer than others but that isn’t fully understood either.
Ory (Orlando) Zhang and his wife Max (Maxine) have been hiding out at a resort near Arlington, Virginia for the past two years since the start of the apocalypse. There has been no electricity for years. They have been scavenging and learning to hunt to survive. Just a few days prior to the opening of the book, Max has lost her shadow. Ory tries to come up with ways to help Max keep her memories and gives her a mini tape recorder, so she can record her memories to help her retain them. Ory leaves Max on a foraging mission and that is when Max leaves. Unable to bear watching Ory, watch her, lose her memories, Max sets off with her tape recorder and some supplies following a rumor about New Orleans.
Ory and Max’s story are interwoven with that of Mahnaz Ahmadi, once an Olympic hopeful in archery now learning how to survive in the aftermath, and an amnesiac patient, who remembers how the world works but can’t remember a single detail about his personal life.
Peng Shepherd examines how our identity is comprised of our memories and how the loss of the memories affects identity. She examines the power that memories have and what happens when new memories are created. It is also a story of love and how the memory of that love can sustain a person.
Three quarters of the way through this book I had decided it was a solid 3 star book. While interesting and creative, nothing really stood out to bump it up to 4 star. Then the final event and ending came and it took me by surprise. While this is where the book got the most fantastical, it also delivered an emotional gut punch that had me re-evaluate the star rating and changing it to 4.