Sandy Springs Novelist Draws on Academic Life in Twisty Thriller Debut

Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann

Two massive concrete lions have guarded the front entrance to Virginia’s Blackburne School for more than a century. Respected and revered, they symbolize the school’s fiercely-held traditions, especially its honor code. After Matthias Glass confesses his honor code violation to his best friend, Fritz Davenport, they briefly argue before Fritz runs into the woods—and vanishes without a trace.

In the decade following Matthias’ graduation from Blackburne, he attends college, grad school, and writes a successful first novel. When he finds himself abandoned by his writing inspiration (and his model girlfriend), he accepts a position at Blackburne teaching English. Upon his return to his alma mater, he becomes consumed with finding out what really happened to his friend all those years ago. While looking for answers, a student death on campus opens his eyes to the dark underbelly of the prestigious boys’ boarding school. Partnering with a local ex-cop to solve the mysteries, Matthias begins to suspect a campus figure may have connections to both the recent student death and Fritz’s disappearance. As he digs deeper, his search turns up much more than he bargained for, including links to the FBI, cyber surveillance, exorbitant bribes, and issues of national security. He also uncovers various Blackburne secrets as well as the dark realities of a powerful Washington D.C. family.

Sandy Springs author, Christopher Swann, creates a complex protagonist and conjures an alluring and ominous prep school setting from his firsthand academic experiences. As the English department chair of Atlanta’s Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, Swann’s 21 years of teaching English are evident in Matthias Glass, a novelist turned English teacher turned amateur detective. Swann also draws on his own four years of high school at Woodberry Forest School, an all male boarding school in Virginia, to transport his readers to the insular community of Blackburne. In true Southern style, Swann also weaves the underlying theme of football into his debut novel. While the unofficial religion of the South offers many metaphors on life, Swann perfectly exemplifies the painfully tenuous transition between adolescence and adulthood with his powerfully detailed descriptions of grueling practices and an intense annual football game against their rival school.

Alternating between Matthias’ student and teacher periods and filled with literary references, Swann’s Bildungsroman draws comparisons to beloved boarding school novels The Catcher in the Rye, Dead Poets Society, and A Separate Peace. Like these classics, Shadow of the Lions explores love, loyalty, loss, duty, and betrayal. It exposes burdens of privilege, the desperation to belong, the layered creation of one’s character, and the fact that intense adolescent friendships shape all of our adult lives, for better or worse.