Tad Williams is one of the preeminent epic storytellers, having built his reputation in the late 1980s with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and cementing it with Otherland as well as several other large scale stories. One of those includes Shadowmarch, which began as an online experiment and made its way to print form in 2004 with volume I Shadowmarch. So here we are with Shadowplay, the second volume in this epic story of fae creatures and human kingdoms, and men who think themselves gods.
The first volume left readers on a bit of a cliffhanger – Briony and Barrick Eddon, the twins who are left as rulers of Southmarch after their father King Olin is taken prisoner, are torn apart. Briony is in exile and Barrick is fleeing with a captain of his guard, Ferras Vansen, after a bloody battle outside of Southmarch castle and they’ve crossed over the nebulous Shadowline into the Twilight Lands of the Qar, the ancient enemies of the people of Southmarch. Barrick, unfortunately, is not quite himself. He is something of a puppet, under the spell of the lady Yasammez a high holy woman of the Qar.
Along the way, Barrick and Vansen come across a wounded Qar warrior, Gyir. Vansen’s first instinct is to kill the Qar, since the fae are enemies of man, but Barrick spares Gyr. Gyr also has a connection to Yasammez and the wounded and spellbound crew trek into deep into the shadowlands, deeper than any human has traveled. They find themselves captured and brought forth as sacrifice for what many thought to be a long-dead god. These scenes were very strong and stand out as a nice flavor of horror.
Through most of her time away from Southmarch, Briony is traveling with Shaso dan-Heza, the falsely accused murderer of Prince Kendrick, Briony and Barrick’s older brother who was ruling Southmarch at the time of his death. As Briony’s journey continues, she falls in with a traveling band of actors where she poses as a boy in order to hide both her gender and who she is as princess. Through all of Briony’s difficulties, an inner strength emerges in her, illustrating how strong a ruler she could become.
Williams often flings out a wide canvas of characters, so while the twins are the major protagonists, Shadowplay also focuses on many supporting characters. The troupe in which Briony finds herself after journeying over the land with Shaso is a close knit, if eccentric bunch. Shaso was one of the characters in Shadowmarch who stood out the most to me, so I was hoping to see a bit more of him in the second volume. Conversely, Vansen walks into the spotlight next to Barrick. His development, both emotional and mental, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. The interaction between Vansen, Gyir and Barrick especially stood out for me as a great thread of enemies coming together to combat a greater foe.
Though seen more through other character’s eyes, the Autarch Sulepis is an imposing force throughout the novel. The ruler fashions himself a god and his will is difficult to defy. The character of Qinnitan, once part of the Autarch’s hive (i.e. brothel), who escaped in the first volume is still in hiding. She has a chance encounter with Olin, which though a small even in and of itself, holds great portentous weight and may prove a keystone scene in the series or perhaps a hit of deeper character relations.
One of Tad Williams best qualities as a writer and storyteller is his ability to create worlds that feel real and with the Shadowmarch saga, that ability is on full display. Each faction of civilization or race inhabits a unique part of the greater world. From the castle of Southmarch, to the dark caverns of the Funderling town, to the ethereal and hazy world of the Twilight Lands, each portion of the world is a character unto itself. Subsequently, the society we see the most of in their homeland in Shadowplay is probably the Funderlings, and by doing this Williams only further enriches that world and those people. The Funderlings are modeled, in many ways it seems, on Hobbits with a flavor of down-home goodness. In other words, there’s both an air of familiar to them, with a decent amount of freshness.
Forum members here at SFFWorld know I’m a very big fan of Tad Williams’s writing and on that basis, Shadowplay worked very well for me. I did; however, crack open the book with some trepidation. I’d seen a few less than overwhelmingly positive reviews around the Internet and it had been quite a long time since I read the first volume – five and half years when Shadowmarch first published. Maybe that time away did help me enjoy the novel more than I might have if I had read it immediately. Despite the lack of “what came before,” something the majority of Tad Williams’s multivolume novels include, I was able to ease back into the magical, chaos ravaged world of Southmarch and the world beyond the Shadowline – the Twilight Lands.
In the end, Tad Williams once again has provided a solid installment of a greater Epic saga. Like much of his work, Williams’s ability to evoke a strong sense of atmosphere is felt throughout the novel. The pace at times did meander a bit, but this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. I found that it took me a bit longer to read Shadowplay than other books I’ve recently read, but I attribute that to my fondness for the world and Williams’s storytelling in a positive light rather than a mark against him. With two installments of the now four-book saga completed, I can’t equivocally say if this will surpass his earlier stories, but I can say it is no lesser than the others.