Book review

Shade's Children by Garth Nix (2004)

Here’s a grim world where advances in technology have not worked in favour of humanity. We seem to be faced with a world where some version of fantasy computer war games is acted out in reality. We have evil Overlords equipped with equally balanced cohorts of machines and men...or is that machines of men? Screamers, Trackers, Ferrets, Myrmidons, and Wingers. They fight battles by arrangement with a trophy awarded annually to the most successful Overlord.

Well that sounds bad, but now let’s think where the machines of war come from. It seems that fifteen years ago there was a day when all the grown ups suddenly disappeared from the world. Poof!

‘Good.’ Shade smiled. ‘That’s about right. Almost fifteen years ago, something happened or was made to happen. For an instant everything stopped. Everything moving halted, every machine, every car. In that instant every person over the age of fourteen vanished. Destroyed...translated into another reality...translocated...I don’t know... And then the Overlords came and herded the survivors into the Dorms. A few weeks after that, the first creatures appeared – built with teenagers’ brains – and the Overlords began their ritual battles...’

What a grim, poignant and short life it is for the children left behind. They live in bleak Dorms where they receive basic education and wait for their Sad Birthday when they are stupefied and taken to the Meat Factories to await surgery and conversion. Horrific isn’t it. Who wouldn’t try to escape? Gold-Eye escapes. He’s been on the run for some weeks and is completely desperate when he comes across an active unit of Shade’s Children. Ella, Drum and Ninde. These three we can relate to. They’re fighting in a battle for the survival of the human race. Gold-Eye is happy to be rescued by them and happy to join their battle. Shade is their director and protector.

But Shade? Who is he exactly?

If I were merely a computer, I could not think as a man. If I were still only a man, I could not exist. But I am only an electronic reality – or am I?

His self-examination sessions are revealing.

I have sent many children to their deaths.
When I was a man as other men...inhabiting a body...I could not have done so. But I did not live then in the times I do now. War changes the breathing man. How could it not change me?
Have I lost compassion? Or is there no use for it in these times?

Yes, that is a key question. Has he lost compassion? War changes us all, perhaps even an artificial personality. As he acquires more knowledge, and more power, is Shade losing his basic humanity? In the end Shade’s Children have to ask if Shade is still working with them to save humanity or is Shade working to save Shade?

I was Shade. I was responsible for everything that happened. For all the rescues of lost children, the saving of escapees from the Dorms. Their education to help them survive – and to be human beings. But I was responsible... I am responsible for all the deaths too, as I spent the children in what I thought was a... a war for the greater good.

Certainly this book will make you think about many things, and perhaps you might be tempted to think about the development of artificial intelligence and where that may lead humanity.

I have to say I was left slightly puzzled about the exact nature of the world created in this book. Where did all this technology come from that changed the world so catastrophically? Was it essentially an alien invasion, aliens playing war games with their human pawns? Or was the Change brought about by the same kind of earthly technology that allowed Robert Ingman to become Shade? I don’t know and perhaps Garth Nix doesn’t really mind what we think about that. See what you think when you’ve read the book.

What can I read next?

Garth Nix has written many books but nothing else quite like this. He is mainly known for his Abhorsen series set in a unique and complete fantasy world:

Or perhaps you really enjoyed thinking about what the world might be like without all those tiresome adults. Think you could cope? See what Michael Grant thought might happen if all the adults were to suddenly disappear. I love this series:

  • Gone
  • Hunger
  • Lies
  • Plague
  • Fear
  • Light

I always enjoy a good dystopian fantasy. You might like to look at this one by David Thorpe:

Or you might enjoy this one by Conor Kostick, set on a distant planet where authority is challenged by achieving supremacy in computer games:

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