Book Review: Shadow Chaser by Angela Armstrong

Book cover for Angela Armstrong's SHADOW CHASER. The cover features a scenic overlook of a valley at sunset (or sunrise). A young girl with a nature-themed backpack stands in the foreground, looking out at the valley.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Shadow Chaser is a coming-of-age novel about a young girl named Faye Moana Delaney who lives with her parents, Tai and Abbey*. Not in a single home, though. To set the record straight, from page one, Faye explains that her family is homeless. Set in New Zealand after the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, Faye and her parents relinquish their house and take up house-sitting for couples who own farmland and livestock. At each new house-sit, Faye makes new friends with horses and goats, dogs and cats, and christens newborn lambs and chickens, knowing that when the homeowners return, she’ll have to say goodbye and move on and start over. This constant cycle of settlement and uprooting puts further stress on her parents, who are relying on IVF treatment to have a baby. Each miscarriage drives Faye’s parents further apart and into their own interests: Tai with his MMORPGs, Abbey with her remarkably versatile animal care.

The only thing that’s consistent in Faye’s life is the media coverage of big cat sightings in southern New Zealand. While no evidence has been found that identifies the elusive panther, all reported sightings conjure a similar likeness: a large black cat with a low frame and a long tail, often seen briefly in the bush or overhead in the canopy before disappearing without a trace.

Considered an apex predator never before seen in Aotearoa**, this mysterious big cat has caught the attention of Faye—and a pack of hunters advocating to protect native wildlife (with guns). There are skeptics, sure—people who call this experience “pareidolia,” or seeing what we want to see, making it difficult for outliers like Faye to be heard. Yet Faye also explores possibilities beyond the physical realm. What would it mean for our guardians and stewards to show themselves to us and we didn’t take their presence seriously? Faye becomes determined to unite her parents in her cause to find the shadow cat (though, “what then?” comes to mind. Thanks, Anxiety) and stop the hunt before it’s too late.

As an adult reading a book whose target audience skews much younger than me, I found myself reading Shadow Chaser with a childlike sense of wonder as to how a writer can capture the voice of a young girl so vividly. Reading this book rekindled the joy of reading for me, to be sucked into another world and learn something new with great appreciation. What I truly loved about this book is getting to learn about it all through Faye, the kind of explorer who is deeply attached to nature and all the joys and fears it can conjure within us when humans feel threatened by the unknown. Equal parts chilling and empowering, Shadow Chaser is a book for farm- and nature-lovers of all ages seeking to spark our own sense of pareidolia—that is, seeing meaning in the mundane, or defamiliarizing reality to make our way to back to it, renewed.

* Faye comes from a mixed family—Abbey is Scottish and Tai is Ngāi Tahu, from the southern Māori iwi (tribe). I was overjoyed to finally read a book about a mixed/multicultural family that fully embraced all sides of Faye’s identity without feeling the need to exploit or mine her for trauma or representative clout. As someone who is mixed-race, reading this book meant a lot to me, especially when it comes to valuing multiple and contradicting realities. I can only imagine the kind of empowerment I would have felt had this book come out when I was Faye’s age, eager to find someone else like me in the vast multitude of books unread.

** After I finished the book, I went on a panther chase of my own (aka, I googled things!). Shadow Chaser seems to be inspired from the very real Canterbury Panther scare in southern New Zealand. There is some recent evidence, (no) thanks to a hunter photographing his kill—a large black cat, which was later confirmed to be a large feral cat and very much not a panther—but ultimately, the sightings never escalated to killings or reports of missing livestock. For now, the New Zealand black panther is a vaporous cryptid entity in the bush that will give me the creepy spooky chills just thinking about it.

Book info:

Title: Shadow Chaser
Author: Angela Armstrong
Publisher: Norsou Books, May 15, 2023
Available in print and e-book on Amazon Kindle and Wheelers (AU/NZ)

Angela Armstrong is the author of The Unflinching Ash, Holly Homeschool & the Bad Character, and the Gen2K series. Before writing books, Angela Armstrong studied English and Film at the University of Otago, taught full-time in schools, owned an art gallery, and reviewed books for trade publishers. She lives with her husband Haki in Northland, New Zealand, where she devotes her non-writing hours to home-schooling three chatty daughters who have inherited a fierce love of words from their mother.