‘Shadow Walkers’ by Brent Hartinger

In Brent Hartinger’s Shadow Walkers (Flux), isolated 16-year-old Zach journeys into the astral realm (the spiritual dimension juxtaposed with our physical world) to save his kidnapped brother.

Hartinger’s 8th novel deftly meditates on isolation, interpersonal connectivity, and how drastically the Internet has changed modern teen life.

If living on a picturesque island off the coast of Washington sounds exciting, to Zach it’s insanely boring. In a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business, Zach and his brother Gilbert are tired of being known as “the Boys Who Live With Their Grandparents Because Their Parents Are Dead.”

To avoid the island of “endless dead ends,” Zach spends his time chatting with Internet friends and posting pictures and videos online. The Internet offers Zach “a world without limits,” a safe space where we can be out to his friends—even if he’s not out on the island.

Here Hartinger explores the unique experience the Internet affords many teens: the ability to be in and simultaneously out of the closet.

“Sometimes,” Zach explains, “it was like the life I lived online was the real one, and my real life on Hinder Island, that was the fake one.”

When Zach forgets to take out the trash again, his grandparents restrict his Internet access for a week. Whatever parts of island life Zach found boring quickly become abysmal. His dad’s old books look unbearable, except Voyage Beyond the Rainbow, a 70’s book by some lady named Celestia Moonglow that at least has kitschy appeal, promising: “the ancient secrets of astral travel! Free your body from its physical confines and send it soaring into strange new realms!”

Zach gives this astral projection thing a shot, and quickly determines it’s stupid. Over the next days he wanders around, mentally building up courage to talk to Matt, the cute geek-hipster boy he’s crushing on. Then he sees Matt with his new girlfriend. Mortified, Zach ducks into the closest place in the small downtown, a New Age shop.

Awkwardly talking to the frizzy orange-haired, big blue sun dress wearing shopkeeper, Zach mentions the book and his mild disappointment that he can’t astrally project. She offers a short cut: special incense to heighten meditation. He’s skeptical, but takes it—and puts it in his drawer. No need to busy himself with it now that his Internet privileges are back.

Weeks later, his little brother goes missing, presumed kidnapped. Zach frantically posts questions to his online network, desperately searching for info, and realizes that while his online friends can offer support, they can’t help him find Gilbert.

Hartinger is by no means an Internet hater. A frequent contributor to afterelton.com and his fantasty website The Torch, he actively engages fans and encourages dialogue through his website email, Facebook, and Twitter. He believes the Internet is a powerful tool—especially for gay teens, as he explains in a blog post, “because it gives them freedom to explore, and to connect with other like-minded people, all from the safety of their bedrooms.”

On his website he explains further, “There is both great beauty there, and great danger, and it’s really important to teach kids the difference. The internet is like … the astral dimension, almost.”

The astral dimension is exactly where Zach decides he must go to help his brother. He lights the incense, meditates, and just when he thinks nothing has happened, realizes he’s sitting up on the bed, while his body is still lying on it. The real world is slightly distorted and echoed, like he’s in a shadow. He flies around the astral realm, exploring the island and beyond, meeting a fellow “shadow walker” Emory, who aids in Zach’s search. They soon realize they aren’t alone, and that not every being in the astral realm is good intentioned.

Zach feels incredibly close to Emory—and the feeling may be mutual. At one point they’ve travelled to outer space and their spirits make out amongst the planets and stars.

This kind of content was unimaginable ten years ago; since his first novel Geography Club (HarperTeen), Hartinger’s been at the forefront of the quiet revolution moving past stories that center around being gay, and infusing GLBT characters into mainstream Young Adult fiction, balancing gay characters that aren’t abrasively off-putting to librarians, teachers, and parents, yet at the same time speak to the young readers that so desperately need popular representation. That in itself is pretty awesome.
By Brent Hartinger
Paperback, $9.95, 216 p
February 2011