In The Shadow Roads, the concluding volume of the Swan’s War Trilogy, Sean Russell brings the epic fate of the Renné and Wills families to an end. Over the course of the previous two novels, Russell laid out a rich cast of characters, showed their level of involvement in the war and provided a grand magical backdrop where these events played out. From the Valeman Tam on his early, seemingly simple leaving of home, to the sorcerer Hayfdd, to Princess Elise Wills to Cyndll the Story finder, all of the characters are given ample back-story and depth such that they are not cardboard cutouts. In many similar stories the "innocent" characters evolve in such a manner that they become almost wholly different characters in order to complete the quest or journey they undertake. While the young Valemen who set out in the beginning of The One Kingdom have changed and evolved, there is still a strong sense that these young men (Tam, Baore and Fynnol) still retain the strong core of their character they possessed when they first appeared in the story. The innocence they may have held is now gone and while they realize the deeds they do are necessary, the core of their character is somewhat darkened by the knowledge that what they do is necessary.
The sense of an underlying history and magic come more to the front in The Shadow Roads, as more fantastical creatures emerge, greater depth is given to the world Russell introduced in the previous volumes, and the dark history between Alaan and Haffyd is further explored. The ending of the previous volume left some unanswered questions about Alaan and mysteries surrounding these two characters, and in this volume, Russell does answer some of those questions. Throughout the entire series, and more so in this volume, there is a great sense of dread, of a black cloud hanging over the heads of the characters. In the opening scenes of this novel, Russell brings a manifestation of Death into the events of the story. This gives The Shadow Roads a greater sense of dread and raises the stakes of an already portentous war, particularly illustrating the dreadful effects the events might have on the specific characters, in addition to the world at large.
If I can raise any complaints about this otherwise enjoyable novel, it is the amount of time between volumes left me a bit foggy on some of the specifics of the events of the previous two volumes. Russell does provide a brief summary of the story thus far, as a preface, before opening this final act of the trilogy. While the preface was quite helpful, a glossary of characters and locales would have also been nice considering the range of characters, their shifting alliances and the wide scope of the story. With all three volumes now published, readers new to the whole series will be greeted with a complete story in three volumes, told with eloquence, adventure and heart.
While Sean Russell may not have the "brand name" recognition in and out of the Fantasy Genre of George R.R. Martin or Terry Brooks, his storytelling skills are on par and above many of the better-known writers. While Russell‘s past work was highly literate and quite enjoyable, with the conclusion of The Swan’s War, he has finished the epic that may come to define an already admirable career. Sean Russell’s prose is a wonderful combination of words in which to immerse yourself and the story and history of The Swan’s War is deep and rich enough to plunge into headfirst and simply let go and allow the story take you down its rich paths. This trilogy is one I plan on re-reading in the future and enjoying as a single.
© 2004 Rob H. Bedford