Sophie, in Shadow

The Ubyssey, April 9, 2015

In an endless sea of pale girls peering out from under dark bangs plastered on every book cover in the young adult section of Chapters, Eileen Kernaghan’s newest novel, Sophie, in Shadow, stands out against the masses. It’s no secret that young adult fiction is enjoying the spotlight, but Kernaghan is an old pro at weaving intriguing tales that teens and adults can enjoy.

Kernaghan isn’t picky about her audience. “Somebody, somewhere, wrote an article that I read that said the secret to why young adult novels are really popular is because of the story, they have to have a strong story,” she said.

Sophie, in Shadow, is Kernaghan’s ninth novel. The captivating story, set in India in 1914, has earned the book a spot as a finalist for a BC Book Prize in Children’s Literature. The plot centres around Sophie, a girl orphaned by the sinking of the Titanic — inspired by Kernaghan’s ancestors missing the fateful voyage. Following a move to India, Sophie finds that she struggles with a strange power that emerges from the hallucinations she has as a result of post traumatic stress disorder after losing her family.

Described by the publishers as historical fantasy, Kernaghan says that her main interests are history and archaeology. “All these years I’ve been indulging my fondness for doing historical research,” she said. “Everything I’ve written has been historically as correct as I could make it but there’s a fantasy, supernatural element to it so it’s kind of hard to put an exact genre on it.”

Kernaghan’s career lifted off while she was living in Burnaby, raising her young children, with the publication of The Grey Isles trilogy. Now settled in New Westminster, she continues to work on books that blend her ravenous curiosity and passion for intense research with her long standing love of fantasy.

In the case of Sophie, in Shadow, Kernaghan was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim which, like Sophie, in Shadow, sees the protagonist through the Great Game — the network of spies and terrorist plots which arose from the conflict between Britain and Russia — in India during the most of the 19th century.

Kernaghan is drawn to the untold stories of history, focusing on people and events that have escaped the canonical history books. Another muse was Alexandra David-Néel. “[She] was a big source of inspiration,” Kernaghan said. “[She] … was a real person, [a] famous Himalayan traveller Buddhist expert [and an] explorer. I like using real people, too, there’s quite a few real people in the book.”

Kernaghan hopes that readers will take a deeper interest in histories that are often overlooked by popular literature and would love to see her readers go back to Kipling’s Kim if they want to read more about the excitement of the Great Game. Kernaghan’s goal is to instil “a sense of adventure” in her reader. “I kind of like to take a period that is not widely known or an aspect of a period and delve into it,” she said. “You know, find out what is there to be found.

— Keagan Perlette

writing ya blog: turning pages, july 2, 2014

This book is heartily recommended to anyone re-reading A PASSAGE TO INDIA this summer (hi, Lissa!), and to anyone whose childhood summers included Kipling's KIM, which is worth a re-read this summer as well. This book is for anyone who fears that young adult books are short on literary value and too long on popular culture. In the timeless style of L.M. Montgomery and E.M. Forrester, this book is simply a treat. (Readers who have enjoyed other fantasy fiction on India during colonial times will find this much finer fare, and delight in finding that this book is somewhat of a companion volume to WILD TALENT: A NOVEL OF THE SUPERNATURAL, which tells the story of Sophie's cousin Jeannie.)

I don't love the cover to this novel - it doesn't seem to do anything for the story, nor really illustrate it, but on the other hand, neither does it sensationalize colonial times in India. I admit I was uneasy with the subject matter as written on the jacket copy - India, magic, terrorism -- hm. The novel is set in 1914 India, and there's magic and mysticism -- and I have seen some books which, larded with stereotype, romanticize the plight of India under British rule and either baldly ignore or dealt badly with the issues of colonialism -- but this Canadian novel, published by Saskatchewan indie Thistledown Press, is conscious of its time without being self-conscious, and is balanced in its views without being preachy or moralistic. And the magic -- well. The magic. The best description of this novel is magical realism -- because the time and setting is real, and then there's that soupçon of the supernatural there to liven up the game. And, indeed the Great Game once again, is afoot...

Concerning Character: It is 1914, and the power of the Raj, the British rule in India, is on the wane. India - gilded, opulent India, with its colorful silks, myriad indigenous groups, rigid caste and class roles and its exotic fruits, flora and fauna - is changing into a place the British don't recognize, a place of unrest and turbulence, kidnappings and chaos. Fresh from the disaster of losing her parents in an ill-fated ship voyage on a ship called the Titanic, wan, pallid Sophie travels from India to some of the last of her living relatives, a second-cousin-once-removed called Tom in a city called Calcutta. A stranger to the brightness and the tumult, Sophie is breathless in the smothering heat, cringing from the chaotic press of humanity and the confusion of it all -- but she is both expectant and accepting of her new home.


Sophie has read every book about India she can get her hands on - Kipling on down - and she is resigned to expect all sorts of nonsense in this new country. It has been two years since she lost her parents, and this is to be her life now, this stumbling along in the shadow of a world she no longer understands. Others say God or Fate decreed that the Titanic sank and took away everything she held dear, but Sophie doesn't believe it -- it was simply human error, and unbeknownst to herself, deep within her shaken heart, Sophie is ...furious. Still, nice English girls do not behave abominably when they are angry, so Sophie goes along and gets along with Tom and his wife Jeannie and their nine-year-old daughter, Alex, stiff upper lip and all. It is when Sophie is busily trying to go along and be an ordinary girl - a girl whose life hasn't been shadowed by tragedy -- that everything happens.

Kernaghan's lush description of India - sights, sounds, smells - are worth the price of admission, and really are where I see the parallels to reading Forrester. There's this sense of her standing inside of 19th century India in her time-traveling capsule, just sort of narrating the panoply going by. The language is rich, rich and lovely, and there's a depth and color that many writers who dabble in historical fiction miss. The characters in this book, rather than being stereotypes, are quirky and unexpected -- especially young Alex's namesake, Alexandra David Néel, an actual historical person who was brilliant, quirky and fascinating, a French-Belgian spiritualist, budding anarchist, cave-dwelling Buddhist, prolific writer, and intrepid explorer. David-Néel was also one of the first European women into interdicted Tibet, much to the dismay of the English.

If you're not a fan of historical fantasy, this novel may move a little slowly for you in spots - and, it's the early 1900's in Colonial India, so there's a certain languidness in the narrative anyway -- but I think if you're a fan of KIM by Rudyard Kipling, you'll find this a real treat as I did.

— Tanita Davis (review)

cm magazine, june 20, 2014

Sophie Pritchard survived the sinking of the Titanic, but her parents did not. Now an orphan at 16, she has travelled with an aunt to a new home with relatives in Calcutta. She easily bonds with her vibrant cousin, Jean Grenville-Smith, who is an author who does not seem to actually write. She also loves her young cousin Alex, a spitfire who is full of energy. Despite the noise, the heat, the multitude of servants and the strange new city, Sophie falls into a routine. Occasionally something strange happens – Jean’s clandestine meetings, a fainting spell and vision in Kali’s temple – but, for the most part, everything seems stable in her new life. Sophie tells Jean about her vision in which she seemed to experience the past, and Jean suggests she explore the gift.

When the family heads to the hills of Darjeeling for the summer, events speed up. Sophie finally meets the famous Alexandra, Jean’s best friend, who is a Buddhist, a mystic and adventurer. Alexandra encourages Sophie to stay in her hermitage and learn meditation in order to understand her visions. World War One is in full swing, and there are wounded soldiers and possible spies to keep things life interesting. Young Alex is kidnapped, and it is Sophie’s visions which allow her to be rescued. Back in Calcutta, Sophie foresees a terrorist attack and has to figure out how to thwart it without drawing the negative attention of local officials.

Sometimes Sophie allows herself to yearn for the privileged and conventional life she expected in England. But, for the most part, Sophie represses her memories and tries to get through one day at a time, adapting to her strange new surroundings. This can make it a bit difficult to connect with Sophie as a character. Lots of time passes with little action or reflection, and it would have been beneficial to have more of an idea what Sophie was going through. It would be possible to do so, even without dwelling too much Sophie's past, which she is eager to leave behind. I was really looking for more of a sense of wonder from Sophie when truly strange things happened to her. Sophie could have been a bit more vibrant and perhaps the storytelling style could have been less distant and dispassionate. As it is, the plot must entice and carry the reader more than the characters.

For the most part, Sophie, In Shadow is an adventure story with magical elements. At first, life is pretty routine other than tales of the fabulous Alexandra and her antics. As the story continues though, more characters reveal unknown or unusual sides – psychic gifts, jobs as spies, interest in the occult – and this really keeps the story lively. Perhaps these elements were introduced a little late which made this story initially seem like a straight-forward historical novel when it really ends up being a supernatural thriller. I did not see many of the twists and turns of the plot coming, and, while it was enjoyable to be surprised, some themes came out of the blue.

For the most part Eileen Kernaghan avoids the tendencies of many authors writing about Victorian and Edwardian India. She does not overly exoticize the landscape or its people. She does an excellent job of creating this milieu and seeing it through the eyes of a particular girl from a particular time, rather than a current perspective. Sophie’s friendships with Will, a young World War I soldier, and Darius, a young Oxford-educated Indian scientist, are both very realistic and convey much about relations of the time between men and women and between English and Indians. The tension between the straight-laced officials and Sophie’s more unconventional adoptive family shows the intricacies of the politics of British rule in India. Ultimately, Sophie, In Shadow ends up being a fantastic history lesson without ever really being obvious about it.

Recommended.

— Kris Rothstein, CM Magazine

Charlotte's Library, March 2014
Two years ago, sixteen-year-old English girl Sophie survived the sinking of the Titanic, but her parents did not.  Still haunted by that tragedy, she's sent off to India, to stay with distant cousins — Tom, a zoologist working at the Indian Museum, Jean, his novelist wife, and their young daughter, Alex.  Sophie has prepared herself for "India" by reading (both non-fiction and Kipling), but nothing can prepare her for what happens once she arrives.

Tragedy and culture-shock combine to wake in Sophie a gift of sorts — her perceptions of both past and future become strangely sharpened.  And her visions will make her a player in the tail end of Kipling's Great Game--the game of intrigue, political machinations, and spying in which European powers, and now Indian nationalists, shape the future of the country.  World War I is underway in Europe, and plots are afoot in India that may well destroy both Sophie's new family and British control of the sub-continent.

I approach fiction about India, especially fiction involving young English girls with supernatural abilities, with a certain amount of caution, looking carefully for stereotypes, romanticization, and neo-colonial baggage.   Happily, Sophie, in Shadow did a good job of not bothering me!  In large part this is because we stick closely to Sophie's point of view--she is aware that she has a lot of learning to do, and is willing to question the social norms of the very tail end of the British raj.  It is still very much a European point of view, but the reader can't reasonably expect more from this particular character's story.

There was much I enjoyed — I am a huge fan of Kipling's Kim, so it was great to see Sophie becoming involved in the last years of the Great Game, including a bit where a German agent is pursued through the mountains!  And I am also a fan of being educated through historical fiction — before reading this book, I had not particular thoughts on what was happening in India during WW I.  And Sophie herself, and her cousins, are interesting characters with believable motivations, interests, and aspirations.  Added interest came from a secondary character, a friend of Jean's who was a real person — Alexandra David-Néel , a French-Belgian spiritualist, anarchist, Buddhist, writer, and explorer.  I may well have to seek out more about her!

The paranormal elements of the story are enough to add fantastic zest, but are not so much so as to make Sophie a special snowflake saving India (thank goodness!).  Sophie's visions do not take over the book--for the most part, it reads as historical fiction--so don't expect this to be full-blown paranormal fantasy.

In short, Sophie, in Shadow is historical fantasy that both educates and entertains, that I particularly recommend to fans of Kim!

(note:  Jean and Tom and Alexandra were the central characters in Kernaghan's earlier book, Wild Talent, but it is not at all necessary to have read that first).

HISTORICAL NOVEL society, NOVEMBER 2014

After her parents die in the sinking of the Titanic, Sophie Pritchard begins having terrifyingly realistic nightmares and premonitions, escalated by the coming war. She leaves England and heads to British India to stay with relatives, a married couple with a young daughter. The visions continue as Sophie settles into her new life in the comfortable home of her cousins. Tom, a zoologist at the Indian Museum, and Jeannie, successful a novelist, prove to be optimistic and well-educated guardians who encourage their charge in her interests. Eager to learn the new culture around her, Sophie explores Calcutta from the Temple of Kali to the Victoria Monument with her adventurous young cousin, Alex.

 However pleasing this new start on life, Sophie’s visions continue, becoming more and more alarming. With WWI raging in Europe, the British citizens are not untouched even in this faraway land. Planned uprisings, bombings and murders in the street are not uncommon, and spying and conspiracies abound. When the family gets caught up in an intrigue, Sophie must rely on her newly cultivated gift of foresight to save her loved ones from danger.

Sophie, In Shadow follows characters from the author’s previous book, Wild Talent, though reads beautifully as a stand-alone. Historically, this is a descriptive and engrossing read on all aspects of life in early 20th-century British India. It has a twist of mystery and a hint of the supernatural, but it is also a clever study of the customs and culture of Buddhism, as explored by one of the characters who helped Sophie understand her visions. Alexandra David-Neel, a Belgian-French explorer, can be found in history books as a spiritualist, writer and Eastern Religion enthusiast. This story includes delightfully light-hearted humor and offers an engaging adventure perfect for young adult readers!