Where to start with a review of the third book in a four-book sequence? A third book that was thought to be the concluding volume of a trilogy, but was then split so the author could comfortably tell his story in four volumes? With questions like that, I suppose. Fortunately for readers of Tad Williams’s sequence begun with Shadowmarch, the questions are less ambiguous and are answered, if not definitively, then with an eye towards an answer.
The story here in the third volume continues along the lines established in the previous two volumes. Barrick Eddon continues his journey deeper into the Twilight Lands where he learns a great deal more about his heritage and the heritage of humanity and Qar in the world. His journey is quite fascinating and in this volume, and the mythic resonance becomes richer as he encounters more dark fae creatures. Protected in the previous volumes by Vansen and Gyir, now the young prince is on his own with only Skurn, the wisecracking crow who possesses a strange speech pattern as conversation partner. Barrick relies more and more on himself and is able to because he had two role models helping him along on his adventure. His ultimate quest in this novel is to reach the mythical city of Qul-na-Qar.
Not only does Barrick’s journey become more resonant with myth, so does the entire tale begin to expand in scope to the world and its gods. Sure there were glimpses and even conflicts with an old god or two in the previous volume, but in Shadowrise the full scope of what the Gods wish to do and how they wish to make their presence known becomes more evident.
Briony has made her way to Syan, kingdom that has proven to be an ally of Southmarch in the past. Leading up to this point, she’s masqueraded as a boy and gained what turns out to be some useful political advice. Whereas Barrick’s storyline in Shadowrise, tells of his growth and acceptance as a young man of mystical power, Briony’s focuses on her rise as a player of political and courtly games. The young princess, it becomes clear, is not an expert and has some lessons still to learn.
Vansen surprisingly emerges in Southmarch after his struggles at the conclusion of Shadowplay. The soldier seemingly fell through a portal hole in the world and finds himself allied with the Funderlings. Converging on Southmarch is the Qar, who bring Drow, their own form of Funderlings to attack from underneath the castle. As with the previous volume, the atmosphere in the underground world of the Funderlings is rich and evocative. Vansen helps to lead the Funderilngs and people of Southmarch in their defense against the onslaught of the Qar.
Barrick and Briony are not the only Eddons in danger and in strange lands. Their father is being held prisoner by the Autarch and self-proclaimed God for reasons he cannot yet suspect. Throughout much of their interactions, King Olin ponders why he is allowed to live, though he knows the Autarch of Xis does need him alive for some reason. There is a very nice dovetail of awakening between Olin’s role as prisoner and Barrick’s journey through the magical Twilight Lands.
Though in concept, one of the conceits revealed in this novel can be considered a bit cliché, it is the process through which this conceit comes to light in the characters eyes that makes the novel so great and enjoyable. In a sense, this is one of Williams’s strongest traits as an Epic storyteller, familiar story beats told in a refreshing and entertaining manner. For all the mythic action and world building, Williams never skimps on his characters. The whole cast is relatable, engendered a sense of empathy, and general concern-for-what-happens-to-them in me. With each chapter that brought a close to that particular episode in the characters story arc, I was frustrated it ended, but conversely comforted by the movement of the story to another character about whom I cared.
In some ways, yes, this can be considered a middle book despite that Williams initially planned to close out the series with this novel. But as I intimated in my review of Shadowplay, Williams doesn’t just tread water. Great development and revelations are abound in this installment of the saga and the impending convergence of these characters lives in the concluding volume leaves me with great anticipation for it.
Highly Recommended (with the disclaimer that one MUST read the first two novels).
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford