I thought I was going to dislike CAST OF SHADOWS. The premise seemed flimsy at best. The daughter of a physician is murdered. The physician, a pioneer in the field of reproductive cloning, is able to obtain the DNA of her murderer and engineers his cloning for the purpose of identifying the killer. Yawn. It sounded vaguely like a plot that Michael Crichton would have rejected, and wisely so, sometime back in the 1980s. And the author, Kevin Guilfoile, was stuck in my memory bank as a kind of self-styled humorist whose work had left me with the vague impression of someone who is clever but not smart. I accordingly cracked the binding of CAST OF SHADOWS with the thought that I could try it for an hour or so and then leave it unread.
Well, I didn't have to get very deeply at all into CAST OF SHADOWS before I realized that this debut novel is quite like the house of one of the characters in the story: much, much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, full of twists and turns and corners and surprises. The aforementioned physician, Davis Moore, is a sympathetic character --- his teenage daughter is murdered --- but he's not entirely a likeable guy, kind of sanctimonious, full of self-justification, and content to follow rules until he has a reason to break them. Moore uses his medical practice as a vehicle to exact revenge. One can understand the concept of revenge, especially in a case like this, but there isn't exactly full disclosure exercised here with respect to Moore's patient or to the resulting life in being, at least not initially. Moore keeps track of Justin Finn, the cloned child. And yes, indeed, he comes to resemble someone very, very twisted.
But this is more than a tale of rough judgment and exacted revenge. Guilfoile crafts a tale that is riveting, excruciatingly suspenseful, and intellectually challenging. Part speculative fiction, part suspense and part horror, CAST OF SHADOWS deals with a future so close that it is not just around the corner but is only a half-block away and approaching fast. Guilfoile's story is peppered with a number of interesting, and flawed, supporting characters, and also introduces an online virtual reality game called Shadow World. Shadow World plays an integral part in the novel, to the extent that it is a character unto itself. It is such a fascinating concept, in fact, that it alone is worth the investment in the book.
CAST OF SHADOWS also presents a number of moral and ethical issues in dramatic settings, all of them difficult, all of them important. It is also much deeper than one would expect. Guilfoile takes the reader through so many twists and turns, particularly at the end, that it is only after extended reflection that one realizes what a truly steep and wild ride it has been. As complex as Guilfoile's plot is, however, he so carefully lays out his path that it is impossible for the reader to get lost.
CAST OF SHADOWS is a book that will be read, savored, discussed, and argued for some time to come. It is simply, and surely, not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 26, 2010