Shadowplay (Shadowmarch Trilogy) by Tad Williams

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Shadowplay (Shadowmarch Trilogy) by Tad Williams

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A complex and leisurely telling of far too many fantasy plot strands to summarise. The mammoth undertaking of all 2,000 pages might suit some readers, but this book alone is not to be recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 800 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841492940

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Destiny has split a couple of royal twins apart, and left them ignorant of the other’s suvival. Briony has left behind faked signs of being kidnapped, and escaped the besieged royal citadel of Southmarch, scene of their older brother’s recent death, with the help of a loyal but hard-done-by older family servant. Barrick meanwhile has fled towards the evil beyond the Shadowline, where lurk faceless nasties called fairies, and worse. He too is accompanied, but has a very different journey than she has.

Elsewhere concubines get chased by secret agents, with a chastening reason of their own to complete their mission, parentless children get succour from strangers scrying into mirrors, and a court poet just falls further and further in love.

There are far too many plot strands of this fantasy to go into, and I have to admit I don’t want to say any more than these few bare bones, as so much of the volume relies on the first part of the trilogy, which has not fallen my way. Any errors are therefore the fault of the reviewing gods giving me this doorstopper of a book without any prior information that this most un-self-contained book does not reveal.

What’s also immediately noticeable is that the series seems to try and go as close to non-genre writing as possible. We might not commonly read non-fantasy books about royal princesses, urged to learn knife-fighting techniques, squandering their days in merchants’ houses, but beyond the discovery of a near-dead fairy for the prince Barrick to grudgingly converse psychically with, it is quite jarring to come across a talking crow. And to tie the slow-to-arrive information with these facts, it is only by reading up online do I find we have been speaking of some dwarven populations.

So this book becomes harder and harder to rate. Not only can I have to get into the mind of those who have read the first hundreds of pages, I have to try and find a target audience for such a huge series that seems gently reluctant to be a fantasy. Yes, distorted humanoid beings within the realms of the shadow that has encroached Southmarch do eventually chase down and capture some of our protagonists, but the world that has been so finely realised is so full of regular, human sensibilities, that it would not be too much to expect fans of fantasy finding a large dearth of magical invention for too long, and in the opposite corner fans of huge, all-enveloping books that aren’t fantasies, finding this more than acceptable.

Tad Williams certainly does know how to prolong his writing – all volumes are well over 600 pages, and yet there is little in the way of flab. With such a bulk preventing him from controlling the pace we read at, and the many times we must pause for real life, he needs to write with authority and control, and this is so – while there is no strong over-arching rhythm the telling never flags – even once we realise absolutely nothing will be resolved before the trilogy concludes in the next volume. Whether the writing gets to full gear, however, is a matter of debate. Also, when characters appear for the first time on page 300 and get the same short descriptive shrift as those I mentioned earlier, with a whole previous book’s back-up, I begin to question more how fully I was getting what I expected.

Still, when the fantasy urges come on strong – and the mythology leaks from the creation myths peppering the start of every chapter and force gods, their ilk, and many more, to the centre of the story, there is a lot more I would feel safe recommending. This too descends (quite literally) into episodes that again I didn’t particularly enjoy however.

There is quality in some of the writing beyond the genre norms – I liked the way colloquial accents were spelled out without yokel-ising them, and there is some strong urgency and character to some of the action and darker scenes. But this book, as a stand-alone read, is just one I would have preferred to have done without – if I put myself into the minds of a fantasy reader with time on their hands for 2,000 page stories I dare say I would quite like it, but for the purposes of a single book under review, does not get a recommendation.

Orbit should be thanked for sending a copy to the Bookbag to review.

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