Tricky beasts, sequels. Very few of us walk into a cinema expecting a sequel to be better than the original, and the examples are very rare: Toy Story 2, French Connection II, Sophie’s Choice II…. But when it comes to novels, we usually expect sequels to be better. After all, it can be a number of years between books, and surely the writer has been practicing their craft in the meantime, right? (Obviously I don’t mean those delightful Phat Phantasy trilogies that clog up the bookshelves like the literary equivalent of cholesterol; I mean genuine sequels to genuine singletons.)
Which is why it’s always such a disappointment to pick up sequels: they rarely are better than the original, as if whatever spark of inspiration that fuelled the initial telling has been lost once the author comes back to play in established territories. When it comes to sequels, familiarity really does breed contempt.
Which is why it was such a relief to pick up Shadows Bite, the sequel to Dedman’s very good novel The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and find that not only was it better than the original, it took the characters and settings of the original novel and reinterpreted them in new and surprising ways. It’s obvious while reading the book that Dedman has spent time with his characters ‘off-stage’, hanging out with them and getting to know them better. This deeper knowledge of his characters has resulted in a story with greater depth and realism, as Dedman’s confidence has enabled him to stretch the action and plot to a larger degree than in the first volume.
A key ingredient to this is the change of lead character: Mage Magistrale, hero of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, is rarely sighted here, and then only as somewhat reluctant sidekick to Charlie Takumo, the much more interesting and fun movie stuntman and martial arts expert who so regularly upstaged Magistrale in the first novel. While Magistrale was the driving force behind the first book it was clear that he was a limited character in many ways: his story was told with the telling of The Art Of Arrow Cutting, and by choosing to follow Takumo into the second book Dedman allows the scope of the adventures to open up much further, as he deploys the far greater range of attributes Takumo has as a character. Takumo is fun, a rock-em-sock-em adventure character in the grand Hollywood mold, ready with a snappy stunt move or a witty one-liner in equal measure, and Dedman has an enormous amount of fun with him. If this were a movie, and Dedman writes in a furiously fast-paced and enjoyable movie style, Takumo would have been the perfect role for the late Brandon Lee.
Another key to the success of Shadows Bite is the subject matter. Dedman is a vampire freak, a connoisseur of the non-Western undead in the tradition of Lafcadio Hearn, and while his short fiction has delved into these traditions over the years it is in this novel that he allows himself the time and space to really work with the underlying concepts and myths surrounding vampires, particularly the notion that for many, being a vampire isn’t a bad thing at all and is in fact something to be wished for. The vampires in Shadows Bite are very human, with human desires and motivations, and much of the power in the book comes from watching as they choose to embrace their vampirism or struggle to retain their humanity. Unlike so many writers who work in these well-turned vampiric fields, Dedman never loses sight of the fact that vampires are more than bad Christopher Lee cutouts, and his creations retain their power to fascinate and repel us to the very end.
Like all good authors Dedman understands that to keep readers coming back to your work you must give them enough that is familiar for comfort, but you must also surprise them with new and wonderful things. And there are plenty of new and wonderful things in Shadows Bite, enough to make it an exciting and entrancing read. And enough to look forward to the mooted third volume in the series, and coming from someone who firmly believes that anything with a number as high as 3 in the title cannot possibly be good, that’s saying something.