Stories within stories are one of the greatest tricks in fiction and have been around ever since people have been telling stories. Gregory Frost’s latest novel, Shadowbridge, is a fine example of this storytelling method used to great effect. The protagonist is a storyteller, specifically a shadow-puppetmaster who hunts for the stories she tells. In many ways, Leodora is a traditional heroine – she’s an orphan, is mistreated by her caretakers, and eventually runs away. The running away occurs about halfway through the book, but I don’t think this would be a spoiler by any means. Also, the story has the feel of a traditional fairy tale and/or fable to it. As the story progresses; however, Frost makes it clear this is no kiddy tale. Or rather, this isn’t the sanitized fairy tale that many people have come to accept as fairy tales.
There is a dark sinister edge to what goes on beneath the surface of Leodora’s world. The original fairy tales brought together by the Brothers Grimm had a very dark edge as well, so in that sense, Shadowbridge and its heroine Leodora would work as a modern example of those stories. The novel opens with a story of one of the Gods who lives on the world of Shadowbridge. This gives a flavor of what is to come throughout the novel, and by simply stating that it was the “first time Leodora spoke with a God…”Frost is telling readers that his protagonist holds a high place in this world.
The world, Shadowbridge, is a great fantasy creation and a metaphor. On a seemingly landless world, an enormous bridge was dreamed into existence by a fish and a man. Yes, it sounds simple and silly, but a testament to Frost’s skill as a writer is how well and charmingly he pulls off the conceit. Each span of the bridge is essentially its own country and spans are populated by strange and fantastical peoples.
While the majority the framing story of Shadowbridge is Loedora’s story, she wouldn’t work as effectively if she were the only focal character. Fortunately, the characters who support her, as friends and as a cast, are drawn very well. The only characters who don’t really show much depth are Leodora’s aunt and uncle, the people who raised her. They fill their roles very well, abusive male paternal figure and abused and timid maternal figure, and Frost manages to push the right emotional buttons in order to build empathy for Leodora. Her real father; however, is a different story. We never meet him but his presence is felt throughout the story. Her father, Bardsham, was the greatest puppeteer and story teller Shadowbridge ever knew. He was legendary for how he captivated audiences as much as he was legendary for his mysterious disappearance. Obviously many parallels are drawn between Loedora and her father Bardsham. Many of the stories about Bardsham are told by his former assistant and the man who is responsible for training Leodora in storytelling and showmanship – Soter.
One thing Soter imparts to Leodora, and a reason why she cannot truly tell her stories in public is because she needs a musician. About halfway through the book, we meet her eventual partner, Diverus. Leodora’s upbringing is a cakewalk compared to what we learn about Diverus. His story, like Leodora’s has a fable and myth like quality to it, and Frost manages to keep this timeless flavor to both of their stories while making their individual stories, and everything about Shadowbridge fresh and vibrant.
Nearly every concept and story conceit Frost employs throughout the book can be seen as statement on the power of story. The stage and workmanship that go into telling stories and perhaps my favorite, that is, the “hunting for stories” the shadow-puppeteers must do daily in order to better connect with their audiences.
As I said, I really enjoyed the story-within-story motifs Frost employed throughout, as well as the general feel of the book. The power of story, the balance of mythic and freshness with characters, and the sheer imagination on display throughout all worked very well. The only kind of negative criticism is that the pace ebbs and flows a bit unevenly in the early portions of the novel. Once Frost dispenses with the comfy-coziness and reveals some of the darker elements, Shadowbridge completely sucked me into the story. As the book blatantly indicates that it is part of a duology (book two, Lord Tophet publishes in the summer), I wasn’t too surprised by the cliffhanger ending, but that didn’t make me any less frustrated by it. This is good because Frost has me anxiously waiting for the next book, which makes me ponder whether or not this was planned as a two book story or if the publisher split it. Either way, the book should, at the very least, be on the short list for genre awards.