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Review: Shadowrise by Tad Williams

Since the dawn of the fantasy genre, which should properly be attributed to J.R. R. Tolkien, there have been many, many attempts by many authors to replicate what he did. Sure there has been many fantasy books published before and after, but most were more magical realism –setting them in our world, and then adding fantasy elements (such as the King Arthur stories, or even Homer’s The Odyssey) – than what Tolkien created with his The Lord of the Rings. He was the first World Builder, outside of science fiction, who created a universe so different, with new words, new phrases and new creatures. Sure, these  stories were basically retelling of ancients myths most of learned about in school, with their battle between good and evil , but to create a world filled with so many new things, with so many new cities, religions, people it seemed the author was more invested in what he or she was doing than other genres. This, amongst many others, is why I think fans love fantasy novels.

And like many authors of this genre, even Tolkien could not finish his tales of hobbits and wizards and dragons in three volumes.

This brings me to Tad Williams.

Williams broke into the fantasy realm back in 1988 (the 80s was the true renaissance period when fantasy novels finally broke free from the cult status they had after The Lord of Rings hit big in the middle 1960s and early 70s. It was the decade of Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Stephen R. Donaldson, Katherine Kurtz and Barbara Hambly) with his trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It was big, ambitious and unabashedly Tolkien-esque.  He succeeded in getting the first two books out, but when trying to conclude it, he realized there was much more material than he first thought, and because the way the story was constructed, he felt he could not just edit things out. So, when the last book was released 3 years after book two, it was 1,100 pages long. However, when released in paperback, the last volume had to be split in two.

Williams faced the same dilemma with his Shadowmarch series, where he states in volume three (released in March 2010, and which was supposed to be the last one) that his distrust of planning meant it became inevitable that he could not wrap up all of the threads in just three books.

So Shadowrise can be seen as either part one of the two-part finale, or the third out of four books. And at well over 550 pages, one could see why Williams thought he needed to split the series anyways. And, from my point of view, there was little I could see he could’ve cut.

This third volume continues the story of the Southmarch and its royal family, now spread out through the land of Eion. The Kings son Barrick is lost behind the Shadowline with only the talking raven Skurn for company (and who thankfully seems to finally be leaving all that self-pity behind). His twin sister Briony is facing courtly intrigue as she continues to find allies to relieve her besieged home. Then there is Ferras Vansen, Captain of the Royal Guard who delivered back to the Funderling town below Southmarch Castle, who, along with Chertz and the other Funderlings, must counter the subterranean incursions of the Qar. The enigmatic boy Flint, whose behavior grows ever-stranger; the increasingly erratic Autarch of Xis, who is coming ever closer to Southmarch on a mission only he understands; his unwilling wife Qinnitan, on the run, and many other characters besides.

With this third book, the Shadowmarch series becomes more complex and Williams takes great effort to fit all the pieces together. And unlike the Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, he seems to have a better handle on his characters, multiple as they may seem (and while there are a lot of characters to keep straight, you don’t need the scorecard that should come with every Jordan novel) and he easily moves the story forward. So while it intricate, it’s never boring.

Tad Williams fantasy World Building technics are at his height with this series and I look forward to volume 4, Shadowheart, which was released in November of last year.

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