Mel Odom, who wrote many outstanding “Buffy” and “Angel” novels, makes an all-over-the-place debut in the “Roswell” universe with “Shades” (September 2002), the fourth tie-in novel. It’s a daring novel in a way, as it introduces a whole new alien race plus the supernatural into the mythos, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Set immediately after Season 2, “Shades’ ” “big ideas, shaky payoff” status actually fits well with the season gone by.
Most of the suspense centers on lot of people seeing ghosts in Roswell and at the Mesaliko Reservation (home of River Dog, last seen in Season 1). It’s a big enough phenomenon that area TV news stations are all over it, but not everyone can see the ghosts. Sometimes the aliens can see them and humans can’t. But sometimes humans can see them. You’ll probably need a scorecard to try to figure out the rules.
At some point, Odom pushes the ghosts to the curb and an ancient alien race enters the picture. They arrived on Earth long before our “Roswell” teen aliens did, and then they died out. But they left an artificial intelligence sentry that causes problems, sending little metal drone warriors to attack Max and company. This idea reminds me of the Philip K. Dick story “The Gun,” wherein a deceased race of people leaves an invincible weapon behind.
There was potential here to tie the (fictional) Mesaliko tribe and deceased alien race into the ancient Anasazi people. That race lived in what is now New Mexico, and some theorize they were aliens or had some connection with aliens. “The X-Files’ ” mythology includes a good amount of Anasazi lore, and that’s perhaps why the “Roswell” TV show avoids it. But for a tie-in novel, Odom could’ve beefed up “Shades” by referencing the Anasazi.
It’s nice to see Mesaliko shaman River Dog again, and I kept expecting him to say something wise to Max to help with the ghost problem. But that’s not who River Dog is. His relationship with Nasedo (misspelled “Nacedo” here) was shaky at best, and while he likes and trusts Max, Michael and company a bit more, he’s not a clear-cut ally. In “Shades,” in fact, it’s the shaman who looks to Max for help in figuring out these ghosts. All Max can do is shrug; it’s a weird situation when the old wise man asks the teenager for assistance.
I do appreciate, though, that “Shades” features Isabel interacting with River Dog and achieving the next level in her dreamwalking ability. This caps a River Dog trilogy of sorts, following Max’s and Michael’s interactions with the shaman back in Season 1.
In addition to SF and mysticism, “Shades” features an unusual amount of horror writing for this franchise, centering on a prospector who kills his partner and is haunted by him. If you like “skeletons boarded up in walls” fiction, there’s some solid stuff here.
Odom’s character writing is on-point, as he paints a picture of Max not far removed from his low point toward the end of Season 2 after he has impregnated Tess and earned the ire of all his friends (except Tess, who is soon revealed to be Alex’s killer). The author does solid writing about the Max-Liz relationship, which is still a ways away from the reconciliation we see at the start of Season 3; perhaps he is leaving space for other authors to build this up.
Michael is appropriately headstrong, and it’s nice to see him team up with Jim Valenti, who isn’t the sheriff anymore but who puts his investigative skills to good use here. Odom introduces a tomboyish 12-year-old girl, Kelli, who calls Michael a “hunk,” and the author gets some amusement out of that but could’ve done more.
We learn in “Shades” that Isabel has started seeing Jesse in secret early in the summer between Seasons 2 and 3. Odom’s writing of the Jesse-Isabel relationship is accurate, but I almost wish we could delay Jesse’s first appearance. He’s not a great character, and since Isabel has to keep him secret, there’s not much to be done with him. Indeed, Odom quickly drops him from the narrative when Isabel goes off to do alien things.
I can’t say I ever hated the experience of reading “Shades.” It has ghosts, SF, history, mysticism and all our favorite characters. But trying to make sense of the finished product is difficult, and I suspect Odom himself might’ve liked more time to figure out what story he wanted to tell.