The publication of the Boone Shepard Trilogy was defined by compromise. The most romantic painting of it would focus on a scrappy, unorthodox-by-necessity approach that was entirely in the spirit of the books and in the end managed to bring the series to thousands of worldwide readers and build a small but very real following. But looking at it that way, while not invalid, does mean ignoring a series of very real frustrations and disappointments.
If you’re reading this you probably know the broad strokes of the story behind the story. Boone Shepard started out as a series of deliberately absurd yet oddly pretentious novellas I wrote in high school then revisited in university as a (initially) five-book saga that was eventually published by a friend who passionately believed in the story’s potential. But of course, independent publishing is a battle without a budget, and so there was always a ceiling for Boone’s success. The first book sold about as well as it possibly could have (helped in no small part by a big award nomination), but the majority of its audience came through the audiobook, released in weekly instalments by Sanspants Radio.
The audiobook brought Boone to thousands of international listeners. It was also free, meaning that the following it built didn’t much bolster print book sales and allow the same money to go into a sequel. American Adventure, then, was done without the same marketing push of the first, and made even less. For a while there, it looked like the series wouldn’t be finished.
I’d been somewhat prepared for this, ending American Adventure with a little more closure just in case. But the story would always be incomplete without its grand finale, and I don’t think I ever could have been satisfied leaving it at two books with two more to go (my planned first instalment, The Broken Record, had already been skipped). So I went to my publisher with a pitch; what if I merged books three and four into one big final novel?
This approach was agreed on, but the compromise went further; to get a release, The Silhouette and the Sacrifice would have to be a print-on-demand title. So, faced with the option of either a stunted release or no release at all, I went with the former and got to work trying to merge two very different books into one.
Re-reading Silhouette, the struggles of its gestation are extremely obvious – almost as obvious as the fact that it is clearly two novels stitched together. The first half is a fairly straightforward, stripped back murder mystery. The second is the real finale; a big, bombastic, globetrotting adventure with an overpowered villain, curtain call moments for every recurring character, and a high stakes, explosive climax. Silhouette goes from the most muted Boone novel to the most excessive, and it does not handle the transition gracefully.
In terms of making the two halves feel like the same story, I think I did the best job I could; threading key set ups into the first half and reworking its central mystery to be a key part of the second’s narrative. But that doesn’t change the fact that both halves have their own premise, climax, resolution and antagonist. They just don’t feel like the same book.
I’m not sure how big a problem this is for anyone except major narrative structure sticklers. After all, if you like the series you’re essentially getting two books for the price of one. But there’s a laboured, lurching quality to Silhouette; both halves were heavily compressed from their original full-novel forms, losing a lot of the colour and eccentricity that should characterise a Boone story. That’s not to say there isn’t any, but stripping the narrative down to essentials means that the attempts at levity and absurdity come off as jarring. Re-reading American Adventure, I laughed out loud several times. Here, a couple of funny lines aside, the tone just doesn’t work as well. One moment the murder mystery is serious business, with previously ridiculous characters suddenly acting like real people – the next, Boone and Promethia are wearing silly disguises and infiltrating an underground manatee fight.
The Boone novels were always deceptively difficult when it came to tone. They might be pitched as kooky adventure stories and in many ways they are, but the journey of the key characters and the central themes were never treated as jokes and I’m not convinced I was a good enough writer at the time to strike that balance right. Occasionally I got close (American Adventure), but often I missed the mark. And in all honesty, in the case of Silhouette I might have managed a little better if my heart had been more in it.
Just like with American Adventure (my favourite of the three), I think it’s impossible for me to divorce the book from the time of my life I was working on it. While I wrote the first drafts in 2014, Silhouette required enormous retooling and much of 2018 was spent trying to make the thing work. It was a challenge I grew to resent, and I think that shows. I remember doing an interview about the book shortly before release and having next to nothing positive to say about it. 2018 was a personal low point for a lot of reasons, the closest I ever came to giving up writing, and where American Adventure’s rewrite had been a delightful blast, Silhouette’s felt like an increasingly pointless chore. I suspected nobody really cared about these books and wondered if I was finishing them for anyone but myself. Apart from a couple of new scenes that I think really sing, most of my rewrites became cursory box ticking exercises.
From its cobbled together nature to its regular spelling mistakes and lower print quality, Silhouette is in every way a compromised book. And that is a shame because what works about it really works.
The majority of that is stuff that was in place from the initial drafts in 2014. The big reveal of Marbier’s identity, teased from the first book, lands hard, driving the plot and characters in ways beyond just a smug unveiling. The themes of regret and influence are, if I do say so myself, beautifully articulated and in many ways quite bold for what is ultimately still a kid’s book. There are some chuckle worthy lines (“if you go around accusing everyone and their dog of being a murderer then someone or their dog is likely to get upset”) and tender, moving moments of reflection. The final resolution to Boone and Promethia’s relationship is satisfying, and main antagonist Vincent Black is a great villain; tortured and ruthless and vulnerable and not entirely wrong.
But the thing that makes me still proud of Silhouette despite its many issues is the ending. The other night a friend asked me what my top five moments as a writer are, and the conclusion of Silhouette immediately led that list. If you haven’t read the book I won’t spoil it (assuming that the above critiques haven’t totally put you off doing so), but in the last pages of Silhouette I pulled off what I’d always wanted to with Boone’s story; a conclusion that not only answers the central thematic and dramatic question of the series (how do we deal with a past that we can’t let go of?), but brings Boone Shepard the character to an earned ending that closes his arc and left me without anything else to say about him. It was the first time I’d ever realised I was saying goodbye to a character who’d been with me a long time, and it hit me hard.
I’ve written before that concerns over the impact Boone wasn’t having somewhat blinded me to the impact he was. The Hunted might have been a bestseller with a film version in development, but I have never once seen a single piece of fan art for it. For Boone, it was not uncommon at all for various readers to tweet me their own pictures of the characters or of key moments. Most school talks I do, I will get at least one kid telling me how much they love the Boone Shepard series. And when I got the library stats for my books earlier this year, I was stunned by how regularly Boone still gets hired out.
There’s a peace to be found in that. His story is still being discovered and is still landing for readers. Whatever the downbeat me of 2018 might have thought, people cared and continue to care about these characters and this world.
Some writers cringe at old work and I’ve been guilty of that. But despite their very real flaws, I can’t be anything but proud of the Boone Shepard books. They’re not reflective of the writer I am today, but they’re an essential part of how I became the writer I am today, and while they might be an apprenticeship work in many ways, they also deserve their place side by side with everything I’ve written since. Because none of it would exist without them.
Writing words about writing words.