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Monday, January 14, 2008

"Shadowbridge" by Gregory Frost

Order “ShadowbridgeHERE
Read Reviews of "Shadowbridge" via FantasyBookSpot, OF Blog of the Fallen, + Neth Space

Thanks to La Gringa from The Swivet, Jay Tomio, and a few others, there’s been some buzz surrounding Gregory Frost’s new book “Shadowbridge” and naturally I was intrigued. Mostly what caught my eye was the concept, but Gregory’s resume is not bad either having graduated from Clarion Workshop, authored five novels and the critically-acclaimed short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories, as well as being a finalist for nearly every major award in the fantasy field including the Hugo, the Nebula, the James Tiptree and the World Fantasy. Impressive I know, but what did I think of the actual book? Well, for the most part I enjoyed reading “Shadowbridge” and while I may have liked the novel, I can’t say that I loved it…

Like I mentioned earlier, it was the concept that really grabbed my attention, so let’s start there. Gregory’s book introduces a world that is comprised mainly of ocean and the Shadowbridge, a seemingly never-ending bridge that is divided into numerous spirals and spans, each with their own unique set of cultures, wonders and stories. Into this fascinating milieu we have Leodora, a young woman masquerading as a man, who in turn is becoming the most popular shadow-puppeteer since the legendary Bardsham. What is a shadow-puppeteer? Essentially, they are storytellers that use puppets and shadows to convey the many astonishing tales of Shadowbridge, but also, they are collectors of stories and that was the device that I found most appealing in Mr. Frost’s book. You see, while the main narrative focuses primarily on Leodora and her troupe—reconnaissance man Soter and Diverus the musician, the novel is frequently interjected with various fables and stories-within-stories which I found to be “Shadowbridge’s” most compelling aspect.

In particular, I really enjoyed the different short stories, which included “The Tale of Shumyzin”, “The Tale of Creation”, “Bardsham’s Tale”, “The Emperor”, “How Death Came to Shadowbridge” and “The Story of Missansha”. In addition to those, we also get to relive Leodora’s coming-of-age tale that chronicles her journey from gutting fish in a backwater village to becoming a shadow-puppeteer even greater than Bardsham. Moreover, we get to learn Leodora’s connection to Bardsham, why her deceased mother was known as the ‘Red Witch’, and a bit about the process that goes into shadowplaying. Perhaps my favorite story of all though was Diverus’ which started on page 114 and relates the boy’s extraordinary metamorphosis from a mute, deficient child into a god-blessed musician who can play any instrument with euphoric results. Specifically in this tale, I was impressed with the idea of the dragon beam—a designated place where people go to worship in hopes that the gods will grant them gifts; and the paidika where Diverus was employed, which offered a unique addiction for its clientele…

Because of the stories-within-stories format I was reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’sThe Orphan’s Tales” (Reviewed HERE + HERE), which was one reason that I enjoyed “Shadowbridge”. Unfortunately, unlike Ms. Valente’s duology, Gregory’s novel falters in a couple of key areas I thought. First and foremost was the characterization. Of the three main characters, only Diverus really connected with me, but strangely, once his path crosses with Leodora’s he sort of becomes a forgotten third wheel which is a real shame because he had some interesting dynamics to offer such as his newly awakened awareness and the ‘dreamlife’ that he experiences when playing music. Soter meanwhile, got the least amount of face-time and was also probably the most generic character in the book. ‘Nuff said. Then there’s Leodora. While there’s no doubt that Leodora is the book’s main protagonist, her most distinguishing features are her profession and her heritage. Take those away and there’s really nothing special about the girl as a character, especially compared to the much more intriguing Diverus.

Secondly, I had a problem with the worldbuilding. As fascinating a world as Shadowbridge is, the author doesn’t spend that much time establishing its uniqueness apart from the mythology. I mean sure, we get enough information to know that each span is a bit different from the other; that societies exist under the bridge; that many wondrous creatures co-exist in the world like gods, sea dragons, demigods, avatars, elves, Kitsunes and mer-folk; but for the most part, it’s just superficial glimpses. For instance, what do we actually learn about the spans that we get to visit?...Ningle’s people are superstitious and enforce a strict policy regarding their women; most of Vijnagr pertains to the dragon beam and the paidika that we learn about in Diverus’ tale; Hyakiyako is haunted by a mysterious parade; and Colemaigne was once “made of spun sugar and other confections” and contains fountains with wine in them. Interesting stuff to be sure, but where are all of the religions, laws, philosophies and other aspects that could have been explored? Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought Gregory could have done a lot more with the world of Shadowbridge.

Finally, as far as the prose and structure of the book, I once again found myself comparing the novel to “The Orphan’s Tales”, and once again “Shadowbridge” comes up a bit short. Starting with the prose, Gregory Frost is a talented writer, don’t get me wrong, but his writing style seemed to lack the poetic elegance that made Ms. Valente’s duology shine so much. It’s not that Gregory doesn’t have the capability because a number of the short stories in “Shadowbridge” really stand out; it’s more that the book lacks any consistency. This is also a problem with the structure of the novel. Between juggling the main narrative and interjecting the various ‘fables’, the book just didn’t seem to fit together seamlessly and as a result, the pacing was a bit disjointed. This also extends to the book's ending. As you may or may not know, "Shadowbridge" is the first part of a duology with "Lord Tophet" (Volume Two) scheduled for publication in Summer 2008, and as a result, there is a cliffhanger. Nothing wrong with that, except the novel doesn't seem to come to a natural stopping point. I’m only speculating here, but I’m thinking that “Shadowbridge” was originally written as a single volume and then split into two parts. If that's the case, then I think the ending to "Shadowbridge" needs a little bit more work.

Despite all of the comparisons to “The Orphan’s Tales”, Gregory Frost’s new book definitely distinguishes itself from other novels and is one of the many reasons why fantasy lovers looking for something a bit different to read should consider “Shadowbridge”. An imaginative backdrop, fascinating mythology, and plenty of mysteries to unravel in the next volume—the fate of Bardsham and Leodora’s mother, Soter’s tale, The Coral Man, the Agents, a demigod’s warning—are all convincing arguments as well. Granted, I thought the execution was a bit sloppy, and a couple of areas noticeably suffer, but I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the book, because if you can look past these issues, I think you’ll find Gregory Frost’sShadowbridge” to be a unique and memorable reading experience that will be even more fulfilling once "Lord Tophet" completes the tale...


Chris, The Book Swede said...

Been wondering about this for a while. Will get hold of it now :) Btw, got an interview with Robert VS Redick going up soon, thought you might be interested :D

Oh, and I'll get to a review of Debatable Space (maybe) soon! :) Great book deserves a review, I suppose! ;)

The Book Swede

Robert said...

"Shadowbridge" is definitely worth a peek and it'll be interesting to see what others think of it...

Thanks for the heads up on the interview. Not sure if anyone else has done one yet with Mr. Redick so I'll be looking forward to that :) Hopefully I'll get to the book this week...

And can't wait for your review to "Debatable Space". I'm sure it'll be great :)


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