Shadowplay, by Tad Williams
I just finished Shadowplay, by Tad Williams. I love reading fantasy, and Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (which starts with The Dragonbone Chair) series is one of my favourites. I was thrilled to dig into another thick fantasy written by this author, and so far the Shadowmarch series hasn’t disappointed.
It’s also refreshing, as the last fantasy series I started in on (George R. R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series, beginning with A Game of Thrones) left me running on empty: the first book really hooked me in, and by halfway through the second book, I had completely lost interest. It was bad enough that I went to Wikipedia to read the plot summaries to the current end-point in the series to find out if something interesting would happen, and the answer seemed to be a resounding ‘no’. The books really read to me like all the male characters did was have sex and fantasize about the excellent and evil plans they were hatching while having sex, and all the female characters did was have sex to try and advance their own agendas. The fantasy really never jumped out at me, and the politics were just kind of ridiculous. It really seemed like the author was obsessed with sex, and that even he got bored frequently with the characters he was writing, and so would kill them off without much warning or reason. It did not live up to the hype. Thank you to Tad Williams for giving me back my fantasy epic!
For those who have read the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, the Shadowmarch series feels very different. There are similarities – with devices like characters that have deeper identities than even they believe – but it starts from a high station rather than a low one. Book two sees Briony and Barrick Eddon (twin prince and princess of the northern kingdom of Southmarch) fully on the run. Briony is fleeing her home, after her temporary rule in place of her imprisoned father King Olin is violently usurped by her cousin. She knows she is dead if she’s found and returned to Southmarch! Barrick, meanwhile, is running north towards the city of the enemies of mortal men, the Qar. He’s been given a quest by the Qar’s most feared warrior Lady Yasammez, and though he doesn’t know what it is, he’s doing it anyways.
Travelling with Barrick is Ferras Vansen, a soldier of Southmarch with eyes for Briony. She is definitely above his station, but he can’t help his feelings and he travels with Barrick to protect him out of a sense of duty and love for Briony. He willingly follows Barrick across the Shadowline – the border of the mortal lands and the lands of the Qar – where no mortal man really should travel. Barrick and Vansen eventually land the help of Gyir Storm Lantern, Lady Yasammez’s chief lieutenant, who is also on a mission to the Qar’s city and senses Barrick’s purpose. By the end of the book, Ferras has gone to hell and back to uphold his duty, and the three have them have definitely stared death in the face.
Far to the south on another continent, the evil ruler of the Xandian nation of Xis called the Autarch Sulepis plots the invasion and siege of Heirosol, a southern city where Barrick and Briony’s father King Olin is imprisoned. Also in the city is a girl named Quinnitan, who was forced to be one of the wives of the Autarch before she ran away from him in the first book. To the amazement of his attendants, the Autarch sends an assassin to retrieve her alive, at any cost. By the end of the book, Quinnitan and Olin have met face to face, as have Sulepis and Olin.
In the castle of Southmarch, a Funderling (a dwarf-like race that lives in an underground city under the castle) named Chert is hiding the former physician for the Eddon royal family, Chaven. Through Chaven, Chert seems to constantly dig himself deeper into political intrigue and problems, much to the chagrin of his wife, Opal. All Opal wants to do is raise their adopted son Flint – a boy they find in the first book who has crossed over from the land of the Qar on the other side of the shadowline. In the end, they are on the run and all hiding from the Eddons’ cousin Hedon Tolly.
Also in the castle is Matty Tinright, a poet who has fallen in love with Elan M’Cory, who says that she belongs to Hedon Tolly and seems to have given up on her life. She desperately wants to get away from the Tollys, and enlists Tinwright’s help.
The twins’ aunt Merolana is a duchess who also resides in the castle. She has seen what she is positive is the illegitimate child she gave up fifty years prior… but the child still is a child! She knows what she has seen though, and enlists a Trigonate nun named Utta to help her to seek out her lost son.
There are plenty more story lines to explore in this novel, but I’ll leave it at that. What I love though is that they are all inter-related, and you can start to see pieces of them coming together a little bit at a time. I find myself anxious to find out how they eventually all run into one another, as I’m sure they will!
I’ll attempt to describe the progression of the story without spoiling anything. Shadowplay is much different than Shadowmarch, book one of the series. Where Shadowmarch is definitely the beginning of a fantasy epic, it really is a setup for where the story is really going. In the first book, the characters all move along throughout the story referencing the gods they worship and playing out the usual swords and demons fantasy you would expect. Shadowplay takes a bold step forward and puts the gods themselves on the playing field, in a way.
I find myself amazed at the worlds that Tad Williams writes. The mortal lands in this series feel very much like the medieval worlds described in so many other fantasy epics. Different peoples, languages and cultures populate the lands, and their conflicts drive the stories forward. Cross the shadowline though, and it’s almost like you’ve stepped into an entirely different book, because the world there is so different. It also feels wonderfully undefined, like Williams is just using it as an amusement park of creature and strange culture design. His intent was to make it feel otherwordly, and he’s succeeded. There really are no locations, there is only the destination – the great city of the Qar. As the book progresses, Williams starts to bring the two worlds together, using a bridge I admit I didn’t expect. I definitely want to see more of that bridge!
As much as I am gushing about the story, I did find the pace of the novel sometimes awkward. I felt like a couple of times in the middle of it I wanted to tell the book to “get on with it, already.” Williams is great at creating a relationship between you and his characters, but it verged on too much a few times in this book. Near the end though, the pace quickened and things really started to happen. New ideas and truths were revealed, and I was left guessing at a few relationships I know will be important in the future.
All in all, this is a great book, and is a good reminder why Tad Williams is one of my favourite authors.