In praise of the refreshingly dark heroine of The Shadows Between Us

Photo: Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller.. Image Courtesy Macmillan Publishing Group
Photo: Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller.. Image Courtesy Macmillan Publishing Group /

Tricia Levenseller’s riveting The Shadows Between Us features a dark and compelling heroine, who’s everything a girl in these stories isn’t supposed to be.

Many YA fantasy stories about a young girl who ends up with a crown tend to follow similar arcs: Our heroine discovers that she’s long-lost princess, becomes leader of an underground rebel faction, or somehow otherwise sort of passively comes into her own power before learning how to truly wield it. Tricia Levenseller’s The Shadows Between Us is very much not that story. And that’s why it’s so darn good.

Levenseller has promoted her new novel as her “Slytherin romance”, and it’s hard to think of a better phrase to sum up this story. The Shadows Between Us follows the story of a a dark, brutal morally compromised heroine who does bad things, make selfish decisions, tells lies and commits murders, all in the name of their own personal gain, and you’ll find yourself rooting for her every step of the way.

Alessandra is the second daughter of a minor nobleman, who’s spent much of her life being ignored in favor of her older sister. Nevertheless she has high ambitions for herself – she means to seduce, marry and then kill The Shadow King who rules their land, but not before he makes her queen.

While the calculated courtship between Alessandra and Kallias is tons of fun to watch – the duo have mad chemistry with one another, and their partnership turned eventual romance is incredibly easy to root for. But, the dark heart of this story is Alessandra herself, who is precisely the sort of heroine these stories aren’t supposed to have.

She’s hardly a role model, after all. In fact, in the first moments we meet her, Alessandra’s busy confessing to the murder of her ex, and the first boy she ever loved. Yet, there’s something incredibly appealing about her complete disregard for the way things are supposed to be – regarding everything from taking the life of another to the rules that are supposed to govern society.

Alessandra is a master manipulator, who apologies to no one for the things she wants. She enjoys sex for its own sake, wears boundary pushing fashions, and revels in the opportunity to claim her own power whenever she can. As a reader, it’s kind of wild to watch a female lead character behave with precisely the level of ruthlessness and freedom that male ones do, which is probably why it’s often so easy to handwave away her many, many flaws. (Her cavalier attitude toward murder and blackmail being just a couple of those things.)

But, on the flip side, Kallias isn’t exactly a prince either. He’s equally ruthless and determined, keeping himself well apart from all his courtiers in order to maintain his iron grip on power even as he kills his rivals and enemies. (Or even just guards he decides are bad at their jobs.) As a pair, these two feel made for each other, so it’s easy to question whether Alessandra will manage to follow through with her plan. (Spoiler alert: You already know the answer.)

The romance between these two is gradual and their connection is ultimately one that feels extremely earned, simply because we see them open up to one another in ways that neither does with anyone else. Alessandra herself manages to make real friends at court, while Kallias slowly realizes that not everything in his life needs to be treated like a threat.

True, we all know where this love story is going well before we ever get there, but the journey is nevertheless immensely satisfying. It’s fun to watch Alessandra scramble to maintain her position at court and in the Shadow King’s affections, particularly when her plotting requires her to own up to some of her worst actions. (This involves everything from silencing blackmailers to literally hiding bodies, just saying.)

There’s a whole subplot involving the Shadow King’s search for his parents’ killer that isn’t as interesting or fun to watch, though it does provide necessary backstory for why Kallias is the way he is, where his shadowy abilities come from, and some general history about both his court and his ongoing search for a bride.

Several elements of the larger mystery will be easy to figure out for readers who’ve been paying attention, and though its two lead characters are both rather groundbreaking, the ending of the story is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. However, that it no way means the journey isn’t fun as heck. In fact, you’ll love every minute of the dark games these two play, and you’ll wonder why more stories don’t have women in them like Alessandra.

Next. A Heart So Fierce and Broken isn’t what we expected. dark

The Shadows Between Us is available at booksellers now. Are you planning to give it a read?