by Tad Williams
Review by Edward Carmien
Daw Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0756402190
Date: 01 November, 2004 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Or are they? In this world, according to the helpful history Williams provides, there was a plague once upon a time, a plague blamed upon the elvish-type folks. Genocide ensued, and now there is a shadow barrier that cuts across land, sea, and air, through which mortals pass only at risk of their sanity and their lives. Somewhere beyond live the remnants of the folk who once lived upon the land where much of the story takes place, practically forgotten over centuries of separation.
Other human factions exist, naturally: there is an aggressively expansive theocracy holding the land?s king hostage for ransom (of one sort or another), and small states similar to the one that hosts the focus of this novel are mentioned, even if they don?t come into play.
I'll get my quibbles out of the way first: Williams uses a handful too many minor characters for my taste. This hampered my ability to appreciate the immersive quality of this massive text, for at every break in the text chances were good I'd be introduced to someone new, someone I might not see again for the course of the novel. On the other hand, I generally find this to be true about novels written in this fashion, so that may say more about my personal preferences than any failing on Williams part. In addition, some elements of the text, despite his clear effort to present a non-stereotypical fantasy setting and tale, proved to be overly predictable.
Luckily, many elements are not predictable, and in fact as the novel draws to a close (and hence, one imagines, draws closer to the sequel) Williams makes a number of interesting choices in his plot that are sure to surprise. Whether these choices will entertain more or less than a rendition of a more expected unfolding of plot is impossible to say, as we will never see a DVD style "alternate ending" for this tale. For myself, I was startled at the choice Williams made while at the same time entertained by the "out of left field" quality of the novel's resolution.
The main characters here are well drawn and interesting. There is a princess (Briony) determined to break free of the oppressive (for women) culture in which she has been raised, and a prince (Barrick) with a crippled arm and a dark spirit (and darker dreams). There is a castle full of advisors, servants, guards (and a stout guard captain), and political competitors.
The world is intricate, detailed, and full of near-human creatures. Some of the near-humans play a significant role in the plot, while others are decorative, at least for this first novel in what will certainly be a series. They are somewhat representative of and yet refreshingly different from the standard Tolkien array of near-humans. In addition, Williams is clearly a member of the post-modern generation, for the eradication of the elvish-type of folks is described in a way impossible not to describe as regretful, a perspective we have learned in the modern era. This goes hand in hand with the mutual demonization by each side of the other -- it is easy to see that a contemporary sensibility informs the perspective. In short, the fairy-folk are not Tolkien's Orcs, helplessly and implacably evil by their very design. They are a legitimate people with a very legitimate beef with those living in their ancestral lands.
Naturally, as a columnist of this fine publication pointed out in September, "doorstopper" novels such as this must be judged by unique standards. Is the Epic length of the novel paired with Epic attraction? Will the book serve as a good example of series fiction? And so on.
Yes, Shadowmarch serves well as an Epic novel. There is immersion aplenty here for readers who like a long, cool dive into the depths of a writer's imagination, a dive some two or three times longer than that found in a novel of more ordinary length. And as the novel promises this tale to tell the story of the End of the World right at the beginning of the Epic--well, what could be more Epic than that? As the beginning of a series it suffers from the extensive groundwork required, paradoxically, for a powerful series. I say paradoxical, because a first novel in a series that does not lay such effective groundwork risks reader reaction to later novels along the lines of "there's a new continent where?" Yet when it comes to narrative pacing, less exposition aimed at the future series makes, generally, for a better novel, in technical terms. On the other hand, readers should feel secure in the knowledge that Williams is clearly laying the groundwork for a long and complex series of books, one that includes several (at least) distinct and different cultures, some of them near, or even non-human.
Readers seeking a lengthy immersion in the world of Shadowmarch, a somewhat non-standard fantasy background, will be rewarded by the novel. Patience is required, for in a very real way one isn't just reading Shadowmarch one is really reading the opening chapter in what could prove to be a lengthy series. Two strong-minded women characters provide a nice balance for the usual "me man, me pound" aspect of fantasy novels, and there are indeed surprises within these pages, albeit surprises interleaved with non-surprises. This novel carries on a fantasy tradition much loved by many, and if nothing else, this is Tad Williams, a bankable name in the world of fantasy. Fans of Big Fantasy should not pass this up -- if you do, it may take longer than you think to get caught up.