A young adolescent boy, mourning the death of his mother and angry at the world, becomes lost in the world of story where he must battle monsters and a great evil in order to find his way home. That is the premise of both John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things and Wharton's The Shadow of Malabron.
It's a great premise. Too bad that Wharton doesn't pull it off as well as Connolly did. If I hadn't been motivated by the good experience of reading previous books (Icefields, The Logogryph) by Wharton, I would have put it down before page 30. It takes quite a while for the story to really get going, but the greatest flaw for me was that I didn't feel strongly about any of the characters. On top of that, the dialogue was stilted and the challenges too easily resolved.
The action seemed to flow in time warps, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It was twilight when Rowen found Will. She led him to a shelter where they ate delicious bowls of vegetable and grain soup, then Moth led them to a town called Fable, where the night streets were busy with people, many carrying rolled papers and books - in the rain! - and then to Rowen's house, where Will had a bath and then a meal of fried sausage and eggs (he was really hungry), then Will explored the house, met Rowen's grandfather, told him how he came to the Perilous Realm, then they had tea and sandwiches... and then finally to bed.
I would find myself having to rework the pictures in my head because of conflicting story details. When the company of adventurers sets off, Finn is wearing the long grey coat of the knights-errant. Two pages later, still setting off, we learn that everyone is dressed in inconspicuous garments of green and brown cloth. Everyone except Finn, I presume. Or is that what Finn is wearing under the coat? A few paragraphs later, we learn that Will and Rowen are wearing leather tunics and boots. Again, I'm puzzled. Tunics over or under the green and brown clothing made of cloth? Why didn't Wharton describe their outfits all at once?
Speaking of garments, the cloak worn by one of the bad guys was obviously evil because it was spelled in an olde English way; the shrowde. (Kind of the way a "wyrm" in other fantasy novels is much larger and more dangerous than plain old "worms.") That was a good part.
There are other good parts. Amusing made-up quotes at the start of each chapter, for example. I liked the source of a bit about wolves: Balthazar Budd's Flora and Fauna of Wildernesse. There is a fine ice dragon... in a deus ex machina role. I enjoyed the references to other tales; Little Red Riding Hood, The Lord of the Rings, The Three Little Pigs, even The Paperbag Princess.
For diehard fantasy fans only. Age 10 and up.