Historical Fiction, Mystery, Middle Grade


Ages 7-14

Author’s Worldview


Year Published



religious life, nuns, monks, priests, crusades, forgiveness, bravery, courage, grief, wisdom, innocence, English history, Catholic England  

Reviewed by

A.R.K. Watson

A young boy struggles to remember who he is after a near-fatal head injury while adjusting to his new life in a Catholic monastery in 12th century England. Unable to remember even his name, he is dubbed Xan, short of Alexander. Along the way he stumbles across a mystery that may reveal the deeper reasons for his parent’s deaths and uncover the true character of the adults who have taken him in.

At first the mystery seemed simple and obvious but I was surprised by the ending and quickly found myself immersed in Xan’s emotional journey. Found injured in the woods near the monestary, he doesn’t even remember where he is from. Though he cannot remember his parents he feels deeply that they must love him and be worried about him. The monks know that a nearby town was attacked by bandits and surmise that perhaps he was injured in the attack on the village. One of them offers to help him visit the survivors to see if anyone will recognize him, but what will he do if he can’t find his parents? Will he be another of the orphans growing up in the monestary? He can tell by the callouses on his hands that he was a peasant, but who is he now? The monks offer to teach him to read and he could, of course, become a monk himself one day but such a life seems so strange and alien to him. All of this is enough to overwhelm anyone. Even worse the other orphan boys have been seeing a hooded figure stalking the grounds at night, and it seems that every night they see it they wake the next morning to hear that someone has mysteriously died. At first Xan thinks this is just a lie the older boys are telling in order to scare the younger, but if it’s true it could mean that even this place isn’t safe.

What stays with me from this book are little moments, like when Xan wakes in the night dreaming that his mother is touching his hand, after days of trying to remember even his own real name, or Xan’s deep compassion that drives him to stand up to a bully who is telling stories to give the younger orphans nightmares. It is rare that a book appropriate for such young readers manages to beguile adult readers as well, but that is what impressed me most about this book. Kolenc’s prose is so effortless, and he balances character motivations and tensions where even a slightly lesser author would have fumbled them.

Another thing that stood out to me as an adult reader, was the specter of the English King. Set in the 12th century, Xan and his friends are unlikely to see the purge of Catholic monasteries in their lifetime but Kolenc’s book still transports me to a part of English history so often forgotten. I can only see good coming of exposing young readers to it.

For the young reader in question I think this is a book they will quickly be tempted to binge read under the covers at night. Even though I initially found the plot simple, I was in fact well taken in by Kolenc’s red herrings that played on my jaded adult point of view. Ironically, the lack of such jadedness is exactly what makes Xan an excellent amateur sleuth. Though a younger reader may not be conscious of the lesson, there is much in here about the value of innocence. There is also a useful preface that explains to the young reader a bit about how to read the historical fiction genre. It also includes some discussion questions to ask before during and after reading the book so if teachers or parents want to work this into a curriculum they’ll find most of the work done for them. At the end of the book, there is a glossary of terms and a section explaining more about the historical setting.

Catholic readers will find Shadow in the Dark especially edifying because of its setting in oft-forgotten Catholic England, but the book is far from didactic or preachy. Any secular reader would probably not even question seeing Kolenc’s book on a non-Christian bookshelf because the themes and values in it are so universal. This book will go over especially well with readers ages seven to fourteen but older readers will find something in it for themselves as well. If you are in the mood for an immersive book that lets you escape the world you would not regret reading Shadow in the Dark.

Get Catholic Books & eBooks for as little as $1 to FREE

The Journal by C.E. Rivetto

An ancient journal. A family secret. A soul to save.

I, Claudia By Lin Wilder

Will the extraordinary events lead the wife of Pontius Pilate, Claudia Procula, to the Son of God?

The Singer not the Song by Audrey Erskine Lindop (AKA The Bandit and the Priest)

A priest and a bandit king face off for the fate of a small Mexican town in this thrilling western adventure.

North Pacific: A Story of Life, Love, Suffering, and Grace by Michael Steffan

Joseph & Miku’s love was already illegal. Then WWII began. Now home, disabled, and questioning God’s love, he still searches for her.

Doctors, Assassins, and Other Tyrants by Katherine Campbell

Kidnapped princes, delusional assassins, and a dim-witted unicorn. What could possibly go wrong?

Books to Pray With, March: For the New Martyrs

Every month in 2024 Pope Francis has a monthly prayer intention. Every month we will release a book list that will draw your heart and soul deeper into prayer on these topics.

St. Agnes and the Selkie by G. M. Baker

Cast up by the sea. Courted by the king. Followed by danger.

Trapped in Time by Jerry J. Weis

Can a team of misfit teens save the day in this wholesome time-traveling romp?

Messina: Book 1, The Casa Bella Chronicles By Liz Galvano

Romance blossoms in the midst of chaos. A historical romance set in 1901 Italy as a young American doctor proves herself to the haughty Italian lord who has forgotten his faith.

Greater Treasures by Karina Fabian

Will Vern sacrifice the fate of two worlds for the life of his best friend?

A Truly Clawful Christmas By Corinna Turner

Father Benedict must learn to embrace the adrenaline rush if he’s going to survive being a rural priest living alongside dinosaurs.

Christmas Spirits by Karina Fabian

A dragon PI and a Faerie nun try to save a businessman from the Ghosts of Christmas.

The Silence of Bones by June Hur

A young slave girl in ancient Korea investigates a murder & meets real life Korean Catholic saints

The Rescue Sisters Series Adventures by Karina Fabian

Kickass Catholic Nuns in Space- what more do you need?!

Voice in the Storm By: Eric Thomas Ruthford

Four young teens find their voice in the storm while navigating the humorous social complexities of summer camp.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Would you die for a flower? Would you kill for one? Providence, romance, and danger rule in this tense, heart-warming prison romance.

Medal Knight Vol 1 by Voyage Comics

A young inventor in the 1920’s finds out his patrons intend to use his robots for crime. To fight back he becomes a hero inspired by the miraculous medal.

Siren Spell by Karina Fabian

Immortal dragon Vern can handle anything—until a curse turns him human…

God’s Sparrows By Kathleen Vincenz

Rose didn’t expect to babysit six children, but God had other plans.

The Reluctant Queen: The Story of Esther by Lin Wilder

Chosen by Xerxes to be queen, chosen by God to be savior of His people: the story of Esther.