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Book Review: Shadowplay by Tad Williams

* Genre: Epic/High Fantasy, Political Fantasy
* ISBN: 0756404711
* ISBN-13: 9780756404710
* Format: Paperback, 672pp
* Publisher: DAW
* Pub. Date: March 2008
* Author Website

Shadowplay is the second novel in Tad Williams’ new epic fantasy trilogy. Like most second of three novels, it tends to move a little slowly, have a lot of filler, and spend excessive amounts of time attempting to delve into the character’s mindsets.

That being said, Williams is considered to be one of the best living epic fantasy writers. Though Shadowplay suffers from many of the common ailments recognized unofficially as “middle book syndrome”, it still manages to please the reader with its interesting (if emotionally repetitive) characters, its political intrigue, and its heroic climax.

This second book in the series picks up where its predecessor Shadowmarch left off. Briony and Barrick Eddon have lost their kingdom to the supposedly loyal Tolly’s. Their father remains imprisoned by Drakava, Lord Protector of rival kingdom Heirosol. Quinnitan is still on the run from the autarch of Xis, who is himself preparing for an attack on Heirosol. Ferras Vansen is stuck like glue to the side of Prince Barrick, and Chert finds himself embroiled in the big people’s doings when Chaven appears on his doorstep. Finally, Barrick and Briony’s aunt Merolanna plays a larger role in the story, bringing along with her Sister Utta.

With such a panoply of characters, the reader might think that the story goes every which way in regards to plot. But Williams is a better writer than that. The plot of this middle volume revolves around three major characters, with all the others being mostly footnotes to the rest of the story.

First, Briony, lately interim Queen of Southmarch, has been forced into hiding and on the run. Born to privilege, Briony is forced to learn how to be a simple girl. Williams uses the pages of Shadowplay to grow Briony from a semi-spoiled, often confused little girl, into a strong capable woman. It is a standard trope of fantasy, but no less interesting for that. Her story is the least interesting of this tale.

Barrick, having lost the battle against the fairies, is now moving deeper and deeper in to the land past the Shadowline. Dragging along with him Ferras Vansen as a reluctant protector, Barrick is driven by a need placed upon him by his own archenemy. Along the way, the two companions pick up two more, one a powerful fairy named Gyir, and the other a comedic relief talking raven. Barrick’s character can get annoying. He, more so than Briony, really wished to believe himself special. He wants to believe that his suffering due to his withered arm and strange madness and dreams, makes him somehow better than others. This causes a great deal of strife between himself and Vansen, as the two are polar opposites in character. Fortunately, by the end of the book, Barrick is moving somewhat past this flaw, though the process of getting there will make the reader think Barrick not much more than a petulant whiner.

Finally, Quinnitan, former wife of the autarch of Xis, has run away to Heirosol. Though many side plots occur around Quinnitan, she is the focus of the goings on in Heirosol. Through her and other characters she encounters we are given perspective on the doings of a much larger event even than the siege of Southmarch, which could change the politics of Eion significantly.

Merolanna, Chert, and some others provide the infrequent reminders that not all stands still in Southmarch. Their stories keep us tuned in to Southmarch, though little of significance occurs.

There are other perspectives as well. Williams likes to give readers many points of view in which to see the events unfolding in his world. Readers who like wide ranging casts of characters will enjoy Williams’s novels.

But of more interest in the story is Williams reveal that there is much more to this trilogy than simple mankind versus the beings of the Twilight Lands. There is much more at stake here than simply a battle of good versus (supposed) evil, and the gods of the world play significant portion. Readers should pay careful attention to the short excerpts from ancient religious texts of the Shadowmarch world that appear at the beginning of each text. They tell us a great deal about what this story is really all about. Williams is giving us a story that is the end result of what was supposed by the people of Shadowmarch to be ancient legend. However, these legends are all too real. Worst still, the gods of these legends that compare well with the myths of the ancient Greek gods, with their all too human faults. (Chapter 39 is even a direct analogue to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice).

I’ve already stated that this book has some of the defects of the “middle book syndrome”. Additionally the text had need of a better copyeditor. There were a multitude of spelling and grammar mistakes in the book. For instance, on page 195, a period appears on the word “almost” so that the word looks like this “alm.ost”. On Page 186, “Highness” is spelled “Higness”. Page 628 has the word “maddered” when I believe the correct word would be “maddened”. And that is just the spelling issues. Grammatically p. 380 provides a good example of a common problem. Notice the placement of the word “it”. “The yellow fairy and several other prisoners stepped up and pushed until it the wheels came free and began to roll again.” That is word for word how it is in the text. This is poor editing, and for a text two years in the making (the copyright is from 2006) it is unacceptable.

The story however, is not poor. It simply ties up none of the plot lines. A few minor questions are answered, but the reader will know that only by reading the final novel Shadowrise will any plotting questions be answered, or the real climax of the story appear. Shadowplay is necessary reading for completeness of the story of Shadowmarch, but on its own, adds little. It is mostly filler, with a little bit of character growth. If you are a Tad Williams fan, you will likely enjoy it, but even those who want to read the entire trilogy will likely find Shadowplay the dullest of the lot.