Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Albert Chamisso is an insurance adjuster who is very rational, perhaps even ruthless, and excellent at his job, investigating accidents and determining faults. Days after getting married he begins to have nightmares so vivid and bizarre that his new wife threatens to leave him. Chamisso visits a doctor who gives him an experimental drug that stops the nightmares, but a strange side effect of the treatment is that his shadow is no longer an ordinary outline cast by the absence of light, but instead a full-colour projection. The bizarre and striking image he projects on any surface under or behind him, a distorted but completely recognisable, brightly coloured vision of his own body and face, attracts attention wherever he goes. The furore it creates is too much for the insurance company. Despite his impeccable thirteen years of employment he is fired, while his wife refuses to accept any more weirdness and leaves him.
The Shadow of a Man is not a mystery like other books by François Schuiten and Benoit Peeters, instead playing out more like a magical realist story where one element changes an otherwise unremarkable setting. Although in this case the setting is the remarkable Blossfeltdstad, a city of flying glass hovercars, gigantic Art Nouveau skyways and massive towers with helipads on their roofs. Schuiten’s intricate designs for the city are more beautifully dreamlike than ever, with soft pencil and wash textures lit by warm golden tones from the light that causes Chamisso such difficulties. Even when he hides himself away in a darkened room, the little traces of illumination that find him are deftly rendered. Chamisso’s deliverance from his trials comes in the form of a beautiful woman, a development rather too common in the Obscure Cities stories, as is the creepy way he gets her attention.
In an afterword, Peeters explains that the ending is very different from its first publication in French in 1999. Five pages were added, eight removed, and many others reworked. For all the tinkering The Shadow of a Man still feels like an extended short story, studying Chamisso’s nightmares and visions vividly and going no further than that. There are few references to other parts of the Obscure Cities apart from Professor Wappendorf visiting to give a lecture. A more typically mysterious and dangerous quest awaits the protagonist in the next volume, The Invisible Frontier.