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Book Review: Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

Genre: Epic Fantasy
ISBN: 0756402190
ISBN-13: 9780756402198
Format: Hardcover, 672pp
Publisher: DAW Hardcover
Pub. Date: November 2004
Series: Shadowmarch Series, #1

When Tad Williams left epic fantasy to write is Otherland series, I was deeply saddened. Williams is an excellent author of the standard epic fantasy. And while his books are long, they are never dull. When I tried to read the Otherland series (and remember, I was a young boy at the time) I just couldn’t reach the same level of enjoyment as in reading the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy. So when I found out that Williams was returning to true, straightforward epic fantasy with the publication of Shadowmarch, I was excited.

Shadowmarch is everything an epic fantasy should be. It is grand in scope, has characters that grow and change over the course of its length, and includes fairies, dwarves, and a medieval setting. Shadowmarch is the common name for the castle that stands on the edge of the Shadowline, a barrier erected by the Quar, a conglomeration of fantasy species fleeing the steady onslaught of man. Barrick and Briony Eddon are the twin children of Olin, King of Shadowmarch (more properly known as Southmarch). As the narrative begins, we find that Olin has been captured by a rival king, and the twins’ brother Kendrick fills the vacancy as prince regent. Barrick and Briony are therefore free to be young children. But through a sequence of terrible events, the rule of Southmarch is thrust upon Barrick and Briony’s shoulders. Something they are very much unprepared for.

Williams weaves many plots and subplots into the story. The most pressing is the fact that the fairies are leaving their home behind the Shadowline and seeking revenge on mankind for taking away the land that once was theirs. But woven into and throughout these tales are several subplots, which as the narrative unfolds in later books, may become a much larger piece of the puzzle. There are at least two significant mysteries, one having to due with what happens to Kendrick, and the other with the strange madness that seems to beset Barrick. And behind it all is the story of Chert, a Funderling, and the foundling Flint. I suspect that Flint and Chert’s story may be much more than what occurs in this first novel.

In fact, it is Chert and Ferras Vansen who provides the true hero for the story. Briony and Barrick, while brave, are befuddled and confused, in many ways still selfish children who are easily led by others. Those two have to grow into the ruling of Southmarch, and it is a painful process to read. But Chert the Funderling and Ferras Vansen the captain of the guard are the true heroes. Selfless, giving, brave, loyal and honest, it is the simplicity of Chert’s love for Flint and Vansen loyalty to the crown that are the most uplifting parts of Shadowmarch. Chert’s and Vansen’s characters made the novel a great read, even if they are but minor characters in the whole of the story, at least for now.

Williams continues to write with grace, and on occasion he brings his characters to philosophical insight that resonated with me, as in the following lines from the novel:

[Barrick] realized that every one of these men lived inside his own head just as Barrick lived in his, and that all of the hundreds of people waiting anxiously on the stairs outside the temple for a glimpse of the nobility of Southmarch lived within their own thoughts as well, as completely and seperately as Barrick himself did. It’s as if we live on a thousand, thousand different islands in the middle of an ocean, he thought, but with no boats. We can see each other. We can shout to each other. But we none of us can leave our own island and travel to another.

You will perhaps understand Barrick’s depression. Williams captures the feel of it eloquently and accurately. And you will understand the skill with which Williams creates characters who we can relate to, even if we think their actions foolish or brash. (As I often did about Barrick and Briony.)

There are a few times where Williams’ narrative falls apart. In one instance, Briony forgets to do something significant, and her forgetfulness felt somewhat contrived. There are several times when two characters in different subplots – Chaven and Beetledown – who have been gone for several pages (and their absences are explained and purposeful, it is their reappearances I am questioning) appear at just the right time to make things right. It feels too convenient in both cases, although that might be me being too critical.

And Shaso’s (a minor character) inability to relate certain events because of a word of honor lacks believability, especially in light of the events and the elevation of Briony and Barrick to the regency of Southmarch. Even the most honorable of men would have told the story outright to his supreme rulers, no matter his debt of honor. For one of the subplots, and a significant event near the end of the book, it was necessary that Shaso not say what he knew, it is just that Williams doesn’t make Shaso’s unwillingness to talk believable enough, although it is easy enough to let slide in a suspension of disbelief. This is especially egregious since Williams so often makes his characters so believable and compelling. Were it not for that, then this incongruity might have slipped the reader’s notice.

Shadowmarch is an epic fantasy in all respects. It breaks no new ground (although the ending is surprising in its details, if not an unexpected outcome) but uses all the elements of a Tolkienesque world to present themes of coming of age, friendship, heroism, and loyalty. All are themes that readers of epic fantasy expect from their novels and that they will find in abundance in Shadowmarch. If you enjoy epic fantasy, or enjoyed Williams prior epic fantasy trilogy, you will find reading Shadowmarch a pleasure. I did.

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