Shadowmarch review

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Shadowmarch, Tad Williams' fantasy series that ended up as being a quadralogy, was originally a movie/tv series project that evolved into "webisodes" in 2001. The first novel was eventually published in 2004 as a physical book, rewritten to the past tense (thanks Wikipedia). The saga ended last year with Shadowheart which was preceded by Shadowrise and Shadowplay.

In Southmarch, Kendrick Eddon rules the kingdom while is father his prisoner in far Hierosol. Returning from the castle surroundings, Chert Blue-Quartz, a Funderling, stumbles upon a young boy delivered through the Shadowline, a dangerous barrier between the land of the Twilight people and the March people. While taking the boy home, he realizes that the line is moving for the first time in centuries. Starting from this point, events will unfold fast in Southmarch, putting the young twins Barrick and Briony Eddon in charge. While they struggle with a mysterious murder, political intrigue and the ransom of their father, the Twilight people will start their march to regain their lost heritage. Meanwhile, is south Xis, Qinnitan is chosen among lowly acolytes to be the wife of the godly Autarch.

My first though while reading the book lead me to label the novel as a treat for the nostalgic fans of fantasy. But then, since the author is Tad Williams, I should rather classify Shadowmarch as a contemporary epic fantasy work written by an author who favors fantasy in the classical sense of the genre. Hence, a mighty kingdom is under attack by a host of faeries from the north and under pressure from a far away Muslim-like (medieval era) empire to the south. Aside from the otherworldly Twilight people and the humans, the world is inhabited by Funderlings (read dwarves) and Rooftoppers, tiny people riding rats. Magic is a fundamental part of the world, mostly so in the case of the Twilight people and their Shadowline, though negligible as far as most humans are concerned. This is the canvas for a tale of betrayal, heroism, warfare and coming of age.

Furthermore, as was the case with previous Williams' work, the main protagonists are fifteen years old. However, to my satisfaction, they are not prophetical heirs hidden away as farmers waiting for a great destiny. Kendrick twin siblings, Barrick and Briony are the princes of Southmarch and they are already fulfilling their destiny, even though it came too fast to their liking. Both are compelling enough young characters (more so in Briony's case) and since they are two of the most prominent PoV, I was afraid at first that the novel would leave a YA feeling. I needn't worry, even though the tale told in Shadowmarch is not a gritty nightmare but the story of righteous people being harassed because of the act of their forefathers, the themes and motivations are serious enough to go beyond the young adult. Anyway, Tad Williams demonstrated in The Dragonbone Chair (the sole book I read from the author prior to this one) that he can write an epic saga about a youngster surrounded by complex mature characters.

Following Briony, I registered that coming of age feeling. Her personal evolution as she scrambles with her missing father advisers is quick but right, I could feel the strong queen growing under the youth facade. Her brother is another matter. Although he hides a dark secret that will probably come as a strong asset in the future books, I couldn't identify in him the same development as with his sister. Maybe because he remains a boy, hard to say. In Southmarch, aside from them, the PoV come from Chert, the Funderling in care of young Flint, an amnesic boy, Ferras Vansen the captain of the guard and Matty Tinwright a drunken poet. Tinwright get the role of comic relief while Vansen is the heroic soldier supplementing a good dose of action. Chert is a charitable stoneworker being tossed outside his quiet living because of Flint's actions and gets his share of entertaining moments. All in all, adding to this cast the calculating lord constable Brone, the Tolly family and their plots and finally Chaven the physician who is more than he looks, you get an interesting portrait.

Preventing those characters to shine throughout the book is Shadowmarch pace, which is quite slow. There again, very similar to Williams' first fantasy foray. With a cast as large as this one, things tend to drag a bit. The characters are thinking a lot, making observations about their surroundings or simply re-assessing their situation. It can be tiresome in some passages. When many chapters follow each other without much action, that slow pace almost become a liability. However, the shining moments of some of the protagonists and the unveiling of many mysteries kept me suitably captivated.

One of the elements in cause is that the story is split between the events happening in Southmarch and those occurring in the southern continent of Xand, without any connection so far between the two. The unique PoV presented in Xand is Qinnitan, an acolyte of the Hive chosen to be next bride in a multitude of wives of Sulepis, the monarch of Xis. While her struggles will certainly take her closer the main plot in future books, it's always nice to have a thorough background of crucial characters. Just too bad that her storyline didn't get her farther. I was left with a feeling of unaccomplished business at the end since we didn't really discover why she's so important and the mystery seems to become even more out of reach.

In the end, I could say that I enjoyed the unhurried ride regardless that it was a bumpy one. The characters whose storyline I grew to like in this first novel should be worth going back for more. I fervently hope the slowish pace will get faster and that the complete mystery of the conclusion of the faeries quest will get clearer. As for that last point, the links created with some protagonists with a couple of puzzling secret masterminds leading to a stall in the faeries advance felt hollow. Too much mind-blogging can get annoying if left unanswered for too long.

Finally, I struggled with a small aspect of the book. The Bonefall Oracles epigraph at the start of every chapter. Most of them are irrational and I could not really make sense of it. Kind of weird (not sure where the author was going with this...).

Technically, Shadowmarch went through many covers, most of them posted after this paragraph. The map of Williams' world is available online (here) and the book contains nice appendices. The hardcover edition of the novel stands at 672 pages and the audiobook is 29 hours and 23 minutes long. The narration of the audiobook is done by Dick Hill, a fatherly experienced voice which I always please my ear, especially so in the case of David Anthony Durham's novels and this one.

Shadowmarch review score :

Characterization............. 8 /10
World building............... 8 / 10
Magic system................. 7 /10
Story.............................. 7.5 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10

Overall (not an average) 7.5 / 10


Tad Williams page


Kernel's Corner said...

I am a Tad Williams fan. I used to hate him not because he writes bad stories but because he's so good I can't stop my self from reading. He even made me lose my preferences when buying books. The Shadowmarch series are so good because of the depth of detail and mythology that can rarely be seen among many other high fantasy novels. And another thing I hate about him is he is a slowpoke when it comes to writing books. I just hope he could write any faster.

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