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Monday, November 22, 2010

“Shadowrise” & “Shadowheart” by Tad Williams (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Tad Williams Website
Order “ShadowriseHERE
Order “ShadowheartHERE
Listen To Excerpts HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Shadowplay

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Tad Williams is a New York Times and London Sunday Times bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, with novels translated into more than twenty languages. His bibliography includes the Tailchaser’s Song, the Memory, Sorrow & Thorn trilogy, the Otherland series, The War of the Flowers, the Shadowmarch saga, the YA Ordinary Farm series co-written with his wife, Deborah Beale, and the forthcoming Bobby Dollar noir fantasy novels. Tad is also currently involved in film, television, comic books, computer games, and other multimedia projects.

ABOUT SHADOWRISE: Southmarch Castle is about to be caught between two implacable enemies—the ancient, immortal Qar and the insane god-king, the Autarch of Xis—while its two young heirs, Princess Briony and Prince Barrick, are both trapped far away from home and fighting for their lives.

Barrick is lost behind the Shadowline, facing all the terrible dangers and mysteries of that magical twilight land. Briony is alone in a treacherous foreign court, struggling to survive with no weapon left to her but her wits. And in the midst of all this, something unbelievable is awakening underneath Southmarch, something powerful and terrible that the world has not seen for thousands of years.

In this third volume, Barrick and Briony, along with Qinnitan—the Autarch’s desperate, escaped slave—a loyal soldier named Ferras Vansen, and a tiny handful of other folk, ordinary and extraordinary, must find a way to save their world, or else witness the rise of a terrible new age—an age of unending darkness...

ABOUT SHADOWHEART: Thousands of years ago, the gods fought and fell in the deeps beneath what is now Southmarch Castle, then were banished into eternal sleep. Now at least one of them is stirring again, dreaming of vengeance against humankind.

Southmarch haunts the dreams of men as well as gods. Royal twins, Barrick and Briony Eddon, the heirs of Southmarch’s ruling family, are hurrying back home. Barrick now carries the heritage of the immortal Qar inside him, while Briony has a small army at her back and a fiery determination to recover her father’s throne and revenge herself on the usurpers.

Meanwhile, the cruel and powerful southern ruler known as the Autarch of Xis wants the power of the gods for his own, a power he can only gain if he conquers Southmarch. And nobody knows what the Qar want, only that the mysterious fairy folk are prepared to die for it—or to kill every living thing in Southmarch Castle and in all the lands that surround it.

All will come to an apocalyptic conclusion on Midsummer Night, when the spirits of the haunted past and the desperate struggles of the present come together in one great final battle. Many will die. Many more will be transformed beyond recognition, and the world will be forever changed...

CLASSIFICATION: Tad Williams’ Southmarch series is traditional epic fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordan and J.R.R. Tolkien, complete with a fully realized secondary world, a huge cast of characters, magic, maps, and a story that pits good versus evil.

FORMAT/INFO: Shadowrise is 564 pages long divided over a Prelude, three Parts, and thirty-nine numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Treatise on the Fairy Peoples of Eion and Xand”. Also includes three maps, an Appendix, and synopses of the two previous Southmarch novels. Narration is in the third-person via Barrick Eddon, Briony Eddon, Ferras Vansen, Chert Blue Quartz, Matt Tinwright, Qinnitan, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Pinimmon Vash, Sister Utta, etc. Shadowrise is the third volume in the Southmarch series after Shadowmarch and Shadowplay. March 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Shadowrise via DAW. The Trade Paperback version was published on November 2, 2010. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood.

Shadowheart is 730 pages long divided over a Prelude/Epilude, four Parts, and fifty-four numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Child’s Book of the Orphan, and His Life and Death and Reward in Heaven”. Also includes five maps, two Appendixes, and synopses of the three previous Southmarch novels. Narration is in the third-person via Barrick Eddon, Briony Eddon, Ferras Vansen, Chert Blue Quartz, Matt Tinwright, Qinnitan, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Pinimmon Vash, Sister Utta, Beetledown, etc. Shadowheart is the fourth and final volume in the Southmarch series. November 30, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Shadowheart via DAW. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood. The UK edition (see below) will be published on February 3, 2011 via Orbit UK.

ANALYSIS: Since Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series was originally planned as a trilogy before the decision to split the final volume into two books, I felt it was more appropriate to review Shadowrise and Shadowheart together...

On its own, Shadowrise would be a difficult novel to review. After all, the book only tells half of the series’s intended conclusion, and the feeling of incompleteness is painfully obvious. For one, Shadowrise does not end naturally so much as it just stops in the middle of the story. To make matters worse, the author spends the majority of the novel setting up characters and events for the series’s grand finale, and as a result, the book offers very little reward or payoff for the reader apart from some interesting revelations regarding the connection between the Qar and the Eddons, the importance of Southmarch, and the Autarch’s sinister plan. Fortunately, Shadowrise continues the strong performance that was found in Shadowplay, highlighted by Barrick Eddon’s extraordinary adventures behind the Shadowline—involving Skurn, the Dreamless, Sleepers, Silkins, Shrikers, Tine Fay and the Twilight People’s ancient home, Qul-na-Qar—and Briony Eddon’s familiar, yet entertaining trials in the court of Syan.

From a personal standpoint, I felt Shadowrise was a step down from Shadowplay, in part due to the novel acting mainly as a setup piece where hardly anything of importance occurs, and partly because the book often drags along, especially for the first couple of hundred pages. However, after finishing Shadowheart—which I read immediately after completing Shadowrise, and which is how I would recommend reading the two books—I had a much better appreciation for why the conclusion was split into two volumes. By doing so, Tad Williams was given the necessary time to fully develop his characters and subplots, all of which comes to fruition in Shadowheart...

From the opening Prelude which chronicles Sulepis Bishakh’s rise to power as the newest Autarch of Xis, to the closing Epilude which reveals the final fate of the merchant Raemon Beck, Shadowheart is a nearly perfect finish to the Shadowmarch saga. Finally, readers are rewarded for all of the long hours and thousands of pages devoted to the series, with an ending that is simply epic: The Autarch’s plot to awaken and enslave a god. Hendon Tolly’s own insidious bid for celestial power. Briony Eddon’s quest to free Southmarch and her people from Hendon Tolly’s rule. Barrick Eddon’s return to Southmarch as the new bearer of the male half of the Fireflower. Matt Tinwright’s struggle for survival while serving as Avin Brone’s eyes and ears against Hendon Tolly. Ferras Vansen and the badly outnumbered Funderlings’ desperate attempts to prevent the Autarch’s army from reaching the Shining Man. Qar fighting alongside humans, Rooftoppers, Skimmers and Funderlings. Qinnitan’s attempts to escape her captors, both the Autarch and Daikonas Vo. Vo’s own desperate struggles to free himself from the basiphae that is slowly killing him. Olin Eddon’s gamble regarding Pinimmon Vash, the paramount minister of Xis. Yasammez’s deadly failsafe—the Fever Egg—to prevent the Sleeping Gods from awakening. Chert Blue Quartz’s risky last-resort plan . . . these and many other subplots and characters converge at Southmarch on Midsummer Night in a series of climactic events that will take your breath away.

Amazingly though, as memorable and breathtaking as these events are, the convergence at Southmarch does not even represent the best that Shadowheart has to offer. That honor instead, goes to the wonderful aftermath, which consists of the novel’s final one hundred-plus pages. Who lives? Who dies? Will love triumph over duty? Will families reunite? Will there be peace between the Qar and humankind? Will traitors be exposed? The answers to these and several other burning questions are not always the ones readers might expect or desire, but they are all fitting, as is the satisfactory manner in which Tad Williams ties up the series’s loose ends (the mysterious Flint, Anissa, etc.), while leaving open the opportunity to return to this setting in the future if he so desires.

As I mentioned earlier though, Shadowheart is not perfect. The subplot involving the Fever Egg felt forced and underdeveloped, and is one I could have lived without, along with the subplots concerning the hooded man and Dawet dan-Farr. I also felt some of the characters added very little to the novel (Kayyin, Willow, Sister Utta, Shadow’s Cauldron), while other characters I wish had been given more face time including Olin Eddon, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Qinnitan, and Chaven. Then there’s the pacing, which is a bit lethargic at times, a problem considering the novel’s hefty page count. Also, because the series uses a number of common fantasy tropes, many of Shadowheart’s major outcomes are easy to predict, although the author does throw out a couple of unexpected surprises along the way. Finally, between Shadowrise and Shadowheart, I felt that one or two hundred pages could have been edited out of the books without losing anything critical to the series’s conclusion. All in all though, these are fairly minor issues that do not detract from the novels’ overall enjoyment.

Writing-wise, it is impossible to praise the Shadowmarch novels, especially Shadowheart, without talking about Tad Williams. While I was less than impressed with the author’s efforts in the first Shadowmarch novel, Tad Williams’ performance from Shadowplay all the way through the end of Shadowheart, was just a thing of beauty. Characterization that allows characters to grow and evolve—in particular Barrick & Briony Eddon—while providing insights to help the reader understand and empathize with them; world-building that is creative and deep; the ability to juggle numerous plotlines without losing sight of the end goal; prose that is detailed, elegant and accessible; exploring thought-provoking issues on everything from faith, prejudice and duty to cowardice, love and death; all this and more was handled by Tad Williams like the veteran writer that he is, and without the skills of someone like a Tad Williams at the controls, I don’t think the Shadowmarch saga would have been nearly as compelling.

CONCLUSION: Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series may have gotten off to a rocky start in the opening volume, but by the time Shadowheart rolled around, I could hardly contain my excitement at finally completing the series, and both Shadowrise and Shadowheart deliver. Unfortunately, because I have not read any of Tad Williams’ other novels, I can’t offer any comparisons to the author’s earlier work, but from the viewpoint of someone who loves to read epic fantasy, Shadowrise and Shadowheart are as good an ending to a fantasy saga as I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading...


m said...

i'm a huge fan of williams starting with his "memory, sorrow, and thorn" trilogy. currently i'm finishing up "the war of the flowers." he's the only author i've read who is capable of writing beautiful epic fantasy WELL. i still haven't picked up shadowrise (was going to wait for the paperback) but if shadowheart is out in a week i need to pick it up tomorrow!!

Raphael said...

I read the first volume back then and waited until now to read the series as one. I was very disappointed by the overstretched and generally botched (imho) ending of M,S&T so I am kind of afraid given that, again, a last volume grew into two. I hope Shadowmarch has fared better.

Robert said...

Miriam, I really need to check out Tad Williams' other novels. After the Shadowmarch series, he definitely made a fan out of me :) As far as Shadowheart, you should check out B&N. It's already available online, and may be in stores too!

Raphael, the ending in Shadowheart is long (over a hundred pages from the climactic battle), but I thought it was really well done. However, it will be interesting to see what those who have actually read Tad Williams' other novels think about it...

m said...

i admit i was slightly disappointed by the ending of MST but the writing throughout and the build-up and the mastery of his characters was so incredible i was able to forgive it. from the beginning of shadowmarch i felt the series was already even better (given the 10+ years in between) and am thrilled to finish it soon!

Robert said...

Miriam, I have no doubt that Tad Williams has improved as a writer, and all of the things you mentioned--the buildup, the characterization, the writing--are strengths of the Shadowmarch series.

For those who have read Tad Williams other novels, what would you recommend that I read first?

TankSpill said...

I haven't had the pleasure of reading Shadowrise or Shadowheart yet, but I am now more excited than ever to get to those. I'm currently swamped in a backlog of books to read numbering close to seventy, but Williams is always one that I will put ahead of others, because I adore the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series as the best epic fantasy series ever written. Thanks for the review.

Toby said...

Who is Toby ODay?

Robert said...

You're welcome for the review TankSpill and I hope you enjoy Shadowrise & Shadowheart when you get a chance to read them :)

Kati said...

Just having finished Shadowrise I was curious to see, what others think of it.
Robert to answer your question: Otherland, Otherland, Otherland! Although I enjoyed every Tad Williams I read up to now (which is everything except Tailchaiser and Ordinary Farm) I must say, I can't let go of these four books. I keep turning back to them everytime I read something else because it is a masterpiece. As you might notice English is not my mothertongue, thus I am always afraid to miss something, but I did not dare to spoil this experience by some translation taking away the thrill, the incredible ideas and dozens of worlds created within this series of novels. You will find yourselve in an adventure so remarkable. It starts in almost-today and here, no fantastic world somewhere else. But it leads you into a dream/nightmare/hope/despair you will not be able to forget! Have fun with it!

Corn Kernel said...

Tad Williams fan here. My addictive love to his works came out of anger that turned into an almost obsession. I was converted when I read his Shadowmarch series despite having heard of his earlier works ages ago. The stories are so good because of the depth of detail and mythology that can rarely be seen among many other high fantasy novels. I just wish he could write much faster so that we can read more books from him. Only we cannot juice some quality works if they are hurriedly accomplished.

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