Marjorie M. Liu made quite a splash with her 2005 debut Tiger Eye. I have to admit that while I liked the first few chapters well enough, the story didn’t grab me enough to make me pick it up again after I set it down and I never finished it. Shadow Touch, the second book in the series, sounded so tantalizing I couldn’t resist trying it. Good thing I did because this book had no trouble holding my interest from start to finish.
Artur Loginov works for the Dirk & Steele detective agency, whose employees all possess an extraordinary talent, from shapeshifting capabilities to clairvoyant powers. He himself is an empath who can sense people’s feelings and memories by touching either them or something they touched. But Artur’s paranormal skills put him in danger when he’s kidnapped by a shadowy organization called the Consortium. They want him to work for them, as well as betray the secrets of Dirk & Steele they believe he knows, and they soon make it clear he has no choice in the matter.
Held prisoner in a bleak facility, he finds his senses under assault by ruthless captors who will do anything to break him. Salvation comes in the form of Elena Baxter, a woman with the ability to heal the deadliest illness with her touch. She’s also a prisoner, a pawn in one of the Consortium’s schemes. They manage to form a mental and emotional bond that keeps them both alive, and may be the key to stopping the Consortium’s evil plans.
The author wastes no time diving into the story, delivering a tale that’s gripping right from the start. We’re introduced to Elena as she stands at the bedside of a pediatric cancer patient and works to cure her brain tumor, only to find herself tranquilized and carried away. Meanwhile, we join Artur at the scene of a grisly murder as he struggles to deal with the horrific impressions overwhelming him and uncover clues to the killer’s identity. Shortly thereafter, he too is abducted. The author deftly draws these characters, tells us all we need to know to identify and sympathize with them, and takes us right down the rabbit hole into the puzzling situation they find themselves facing along with them.
The sense of mystery Liu sustains for the first several chapters is highly effective, leaving the reader wondering what exactly is happening and letting us find out the answers with the characters. It helps that her villains are some of the most evil and truly unsettling I’ve come across in a while, the kind of nasty pieces of work who are capable of anything. In the midst of so much uncertainly and menace, the bond formed by Artur and Elena is highly romantic. Both are tortured characters, having faced rejection and loss in their pasts, and the way they find strength in each other is quite touching.
Perhaps inevitably, the second half loses some of the creepy intensity as the story branches out. Liu compensates with a steady stream of action keeps the pages turning. I loved the exotic and unusual setting (which I won’t reveal to avoid ruining it, though the cover illustration does offer an indication). There’s plenty of excitement, some good twists and turns, and riveting set pieces all the way down to the end. The dialogue is somewhat uneven – sometimes clever and witty, sometimes clunky – and the prose isn’t always the smoothest, but the story is more than strong enough to carry it past any such minor concerns.
As the second book in a series, there are references to earlier plot points and characters, but it stands on its own more than enough to be a satisfying read in its own right. Dirk & Steele and the major players are smoothly introduced, allowing newcomers to feel welcomed into this saga without having missed much. Meanwhile, intriguing secondary characters are added to the canvas and obviously primed for future stories, but not in a way that feels forced or annoying. The ending does a nice job posing enticing questions for the future while giving this story the satisfying conclusion it deserves.
Shadow Touch is an inventive paranormal tale with the right blend of mystery, emotion, action and romance. Most of all, it’s just a highly entertaining read from an author who should find herself with more fans after this one. Consider me a convert.