In the deep heart of the forest, there are places where no light ever shines, where darkness is folded by pale hands and jewel-bright eyes, where the world is ruled by the wicked and kept by the wraiths. This is where the Sprites of the Sihl live.
But Sprites are not born, they are made. On the path to Spritehood, spritelings must first become shades. They do so by binding a shadow: a woodland creature, who guides them through their training. Together, they keep from the light and learn to enchant living things, to bind them, and, eventually, to kill them.
Yet, not all spritelings are born with malice—they must earn it or they are condemned. What happens then to the spriteling who finds a shadow where she shouldn’t? What happens if that particular spriteling wasn’t born with malice at all?
Ahraia was that spriteling. She ran too close to the light and bound herself to a wolf, a more powerful shadow than any that came before it. Now a shade, her shadow marks her for greatness. But a test is coming, and the further they wander out of the darkness, the deeper they wander into danger. Ahraia’s time is coming and what awaits her at the end of her test will either make her or kill her . . .
The subtleties of telepathic communication with plants, animals, and each other, births a fascinating and complex society. I loved the little cultural details in this novel. The sprites’ intricate body language is delightful, while the competitive hierarchy and social rituals tend to be brutal. The banishing of sprites and shades who don’t measure up is particularly complex but one of the main reasons it stood out for me is creepy monsters! I’m thoroughly intrigued by the Shad-Mon, daemons who guard the heart of the Shadow forest, and I hope to discover more about them in future instalments of The Realmless series.
'Don't drink the water, noiselessly part.
Don't break the branch, stay from the heart.
Don't try to run, or try to swim,
waiting and watching, the Shad-Mon grim.'
Ahraia is a rebel, which is an interesting trait to have when your culture and community emphasise ruthlessness as a desirable personality trait. Bonding a wolf during her shadow test has marked her as a strong contender for future leadership, which places a huge target on her back. Her love for her family, including her shadow, Losna, and her determination to save them from the uglier side of spritish life endeared Ahraia to me. I was rooting for her through every impossible choice the Astra and Masai forced on her. There were times when it seemed she’d lost her way, but her development is highly satisfying overall.
Between the Shade and the Shadow advances at a good pace and Alexander builds this story with both cunning and delicacy. Initially, it feels like one is taking the scenic route to get from one plot point to the next, but I have no complaints since this allowed me to immerse myself in this amazing world. There were plenty of plot twists I didn’t see coming and many occasions where I wondered how Ahraia could possibly escape from a situation.
Between the Shade and the Shadow is an elegant and gripping dark fantasy with a lot of heart. This is definitely one of my best reads for 2018 so far and I’m keen to see where Alexander’s next book will take us in The Realmless world.
Interview with Coleman Alexander
Writing, for me, is a chance to explore and understand the complexities of human nature. Reading is an escape that cultivates empathy and intelligence. Like travel, reading broadens a person’s outlook on life. I believe if everyone read for enjoyment from a young age onward, there would be much less strife in the world.
Describe your writing space?
Because my time is stretched so thin, I work anywhere I can: couch, dining room table, work, hotel rooms . . . My chief writing space, however, is in my office at home. After eight years of working without a true space, I designed my office very particularly. I have a big, open desk that I keep free of clutter. It wraps around me, and my computer is the only thing within reach. I have a chair that I’m in love with. It almost broke my bank, but it is worth it because now I don’t break my back. I look towards a bookshelf that has all my favorite books and I have photography up that puts me in a creative mindset.
What were your goals and intentions in this book and how well do you feel you achieved them?
My goal originally was just to finish something. Anything. To take a concept from initial idea to finished product. I had been wallowing away in partial creation for years, so I needed to get something finished and if didn’t, I was going to die trying.
As far as achieving that goal, technically, it’s done. Between the Shade and the Shadow was definitely a step in the right direction. I still don’t have a lot of confidence in my work, however, and hope to continue to grow as a writer. It did help me define my process, and since that time I’ve been able to finish other works as well.
Are there any details you know about the world and characters in Between the Shade and the Shadow that aren’t in the book, and can you share one?
The chapters Broken Dark and Kill were originally written in the first book of the Realmless from Denali’s (the elf) point of view. The chapter titled Severed was originally written from Adriam, the boy’s perspective. Both will be featured in Book One of the Realmless in their original forms. They were reverse engineered to fit Ahraia’s story. The same goes for the epilogue.
We meet Anasazi of the Cirice on multiple occasions. She has a long and convoluted past. She is one of the primary villains in The Realmless.
The Kingdom of men that Ahraia passes during the second test is the first place I wrote about fifteen years ago. It’s called Astenith, and it’s the starting point for The Realmless Series.
The elves and sprites of this world are the same race, separated by a thousand years of cultural evolution that has changed both traditions, societies, and even their appearance. Most of their differences come from the ways their magic shapes them. Sprites use magic to kill, while elves forbid such uses of magic.
The Heart of the Forests are important, but won’t be revealed until the central series is well underway.
The Shad-Mon are remnants of an older war. They were put in the woods with a specific purpose by a specific person.
Ahraia will have a love interest eventually.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have one middle-grade novel that just needs to go to the editor for copy edits and proofreading. It’s a winter story and will either be out this year or next, though it will be under a variation of my pen name.
I’m 300k words into a trilogy introducing one of the human sides to the Realmless conflict. I hope to finish that sometime this year, and I’m hoping to have the first book out next summer.
I’ve got four or five half-finished books which I intend to finish and another 500k plus words of original drafts that will never see the light of day.
As I said before, time is my curse. With a full-time job and full-time family, I have to squeeze in my writing wherever I can. Now that my process is refining itself, I hope to be able to put out books more frequently.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Good premise and good revision. If the story doesn’t have a heart, it doesn’t deserve to live. And if it hasn’t be revised, then the writing probably isn’t ready for the world. My first drafts are horrendous. My second drafts are too. My work doesn’t pass my own test until I can read every single word aloud without cringing.
Which comes first, the plot or characters?
For the most part, they come from each other. It's the chicken or the egg question—but in truth, it’s far more complicated. If I was forced to choose, I would say characters. The characters and their conflict (both inner and outer) drive the story. The plot reveals that conflict, and so they couldn’t exist without each other.
I loved the nuances of conveyance and the body language sprites use with each other, how did you develop this social aspect of Between the Shadow and the Shade?
This is such a cool compliment! Thank you! I like it so much that I’m going to go completely overboard to answer it.
I originally wrote this story in order to develop a part of my fantasy world that was incomplete. I had been writing about sprites in another series (my main series) but I didn’t know much about them. They were just elves who lived in the dark. When I started to world build for this story, I knew two things: one, their willingness to kill with magic had shaped their evolution, and two, they were matriarchal. From that, everything else came to be.
It started with a connection to living things. Organic magic as I like to think of it (the other races in my world have inorganic magic). It took a long time to get the conveyance and subtleties right. First of all, there was a hierarchy of who got to speak and who didn’t. Conveyance goes upward, so you convey to your superiors: Males convey to females and youth to elders. Using that, I had a built-in conflict anytime anyone spoke out of turn. It was a tricky balance not to do it too much. Secondly. These are creatures of the night, so their ears and eyes are important to them. They also communicated silently, so body language would be just as important as actual language. I observed and stole a lot from nature (it’s a great teacher as to how and why things work), applying it to sprites. For example, most of the ear movements mimic movements from nature e.g. Tucked back for aggression, dipped downward for subservience etc. I think my favorite part is that if you re-read it, the meanings of the body language likely show more on a second pass, once the suspense has been taken away.
What kind of research did you do for this novel, and can you share something interesting you learned while doing research?
The only research I actually did was going out in the woods. Anytime I was stuck, I would go out on a run in the forest and ground myself in nature because that’s what the book called for.
What did you edit out of this book? Can you share any cut-scenes you particularly enjoyed?
Forty thousand words of junk! Surprisingly enough, there isn’t a single cut scene that I would share. Good riddance! (There might be one, but let’s pretend like there are zero)
Can you tell me more about the world of the Realmless and your plans for this series?
The Realmless is an epic fantasy series that I’ve been working on for almost fifteen years now, set in the world of Galadore. Galadore sprung up as a daydream for me and developed out of my love of medieval fantasy, mythology, evolution, and adventure. The world is expansive and diverse and features my own take on a number of mythical creatures and magic and the interplay between them all.
I spent a long time developing the world and the story, but after many years of fruitless toil, I had to step away because I didn’t have the skill to write such a large and complex story. I was pretty down about it at the time, but after a few months, I still wanted to write in Galadore. And while I say those years were fruitless, the seeds had been planted, and they just took longer than expected to grow.
Because it is a large and complex story, I took a step back in order to develop my writings skills. I’m planning on releasing multiple books meant to introduce the world and a few of the conflicts while gaining the skill needed to write a major fantasy saga. I actually feel like I’m there now, but I’ve got a few other works to get out of my system before I fully dive back in (I continue to refine the story plan/structure as I go).
Will Ahraia’s story continue in a later book?
It will, though not as a sequel. The rest of her story will be told in The Realmless, which is still in the development and drafting stage. She is one of the main characters in the books, all of which you glimpse during Between the Shade and the Shadow. That was one of the most enjoyable and difficult aspects of writing this novel. I wanted to weave the three other central characters into the story, and doing so took a considerable amount of time and effort. The others are Denali, an elf (alp), Mariel, a human witch, and Adriam, a boy from the Kingdom of Astenith.
What’s your favourite underappreciated novel?
I’ll admit, I’m not as well read as I should be. I tend to read books that are near the top of the fantasy or sci-fi lists, so they are already very well appreciated.
I’m just now starting to read self-published titles. It only seems fair to support my fellow authors.
That being said, my answer, for now, is The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Patrick Rothfuss needs no extra press, but that book enchanted me. Right away, I would warn readers that it is NOT a book for everybody. Auri is a strange and broken character, but I love her. And the world of the underthing is foreign and full of mystery. I wish there were more books like that, about the small corners of these fantastic worlds.
What books have influenced your life the most (either books you’ve written or books you’ve read)?
My very first memory of story books was my mom reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings to my brother and sister. I was five years younger than them so it was well beyond my comprehension, but it was the spark that would later ignite my love for writing.
After that, Redwall, by Brian Jacques, got me into reading. I remember waiting every year for the new book to release, and I would spend the interim reading and re-reading all the books I already had. I think those two were the most formative, though I’ve seen gone on to call many books my favorites.
What are you currently reading?
Currently, none. I’ve got four or five books lined up and ready to go, but I’m neck deep in the first/second draft of a trilogy, and when I write, I can’t read. Reading dilutes and sometimes dries up my creative well, and in fact, good writing absolutely cripples me. It makes my own work seem terrible and pointless, and so I shy away from reading if I’m in a good flow. Once I get blocked, a good book for some reason can be all it takes to reconnect to my own work.
Do you have a preference between ebooks, paperbacks, or hardcover books?
I like ebooks, just because my whole library goes with me everywhere I go. I used to lug around two or three massive books when I would travel, just in case I got on a roll and needed the next in a series. That being said, I miss the smell and feel of books, and sometimes I stop in at bookstores just to remember that.
Name five favourite movies:
The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (original trilogy), Gladiator, Braveheart, The Departed. And Captain Fantastic.
Are you a morning or a night person?
A morning person who naturally is a night owl. That was a hard change to make, but now I’ve come to love the quiet hours of the morning when the whole world is sleeping.
Tell us about a unique or quirky habit of yours?
I have none because I’m perfectly normal!!!!
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
Backpacking in backcountry Alaska. There’s no feeling like getting dropped off next to a set of bear prints the size of dinner plates and watching the float plane disappear out of sight. Makes you feel very small, very quickly.
Follow Coleman Alexander on Twitter, or at Therealmless.com