The Shadow of the Ship
by Robert Wilfred Franson

Review by
Dean M. Sandin

Revised Edition: 98,000 words; 240 pages
Kindle; KDP Print: 2014

February 2015

The Shadow of the Ship - Mattingly cover painting - Revised Edition, 2014 A Visionary Quest

Up front: I have known the author for many decades, as the acknowledgments page will confirm. Assign stars to his story as you will, and so shall I. We all form such judgments as much from the context we bring to a story as from its contents. And so I have formed mine.

As to The Shadow of the Ship. Since the dawn of literature, a strong thread running through it has been the quest story — often the quest of a unique and strong protagonist (and, as here, a unique and appealing sidekick), sometimes through a strange land, always facing problems to be solved, all in the name of gaining a powerful reward. In imaginative enough literature, you can even get a vision of the universe and human existence, with implications for natural dangers, for human dangers, for scientific possibility, and for the nature of the reward to be had.

And ... the land and problems and rewards may not be merely compelling, but may fall into a new category. For the land here isn't exactly land; it's a different kind of physical setting and place, meaning among other things a new form of exploration fraught with mystery and touching on any number of worlds and their populations. Populations whose conflicts may spill out to challenge the quest. Populations any one of which may sway the quest with novel discoveries as inexplicable as this new setting itself, and may bring novel powers as dramatic as the protagonist's own.

As in Robert Wilfred Franson's The Shadow of the Ship.

Lest the would-be reader worry that all-newness and all-strangeness must mean little human familiarity in character, values, and purpose: don't worry. The author grounds things from the start. He plunges us into a caravan adapted to crossing this deadly non-land like a wagon train; he takes us in search of the quest-object, a possibly apocryphal, possibly chimerical — or possibly real — massive, abandoned or wrecked, red-glowing ghost-ship resting in some far reach of this universe's non-land; and we enter into friendships, loves, hates, personal transformations, and ideological conflicts, all recognizable in any era. The strangeness flows regular, but so do the perfectly human aspirations and human plotting to achieve them. Human longings, human determination virtuous and vile. Fallibility, foolishness. Cool competence. Heroism.

Finally: the strangeness of this unique universe is wider than the storyteller has sought to pack into one novel. Even with all that hits you, you are more teased than saturated. Next up, it is hinted, a new and radically strange sort of desert. As effective entertainers always know, always leave them wanting more.


© 2015 Dean M. Sandin

Cover painting
by David B. Mattingly

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