Posted on April 15, 2011 by Monica Valentinelli
Available at Amazon.com
There are books, and then there are books. Shadowheart, the fourth and final volume of the Shadowmarch series by Tad Williams, is one such tome. You may recall my review of Shadowplay, my review of Shadowrise and our publication of the Shadowrise preview. It seems like only yesterday when I started reading this series about feuding families, ancient legends, bizarre cultures, extraordinary creatures and colorful characters. Shadowheart brings it all to a close in an unusual way.
Why unusual? Well, first and foremost, the series was originally supposed to be three books — not four. After reading Shadowheart, I can see why Williams needed a whole ‘nother 722 pages to explore this story. Or should I say…stories?
With the way that this book is structured, you do not have to read the previous three volumes in the series before you pick up Shadowheart. By far, this series has been structured in the best and most intelligent way possible. Before the story begins, you encounter the synopses of the first three books and a prelude to the opening chapter. With maps. (Did I mention the maps? Yes, they’re pretty cool!) There is also an expanded Appendix complete with names of the gods, characters, places, etc. If you ever feel like you’re missing a detail, there’s plenty of reference material to help you catch up.
Before I go any further, I want you to know I’m going to do my best not to spoil this for you, but if you’re worried about that, then don’t read the rest.
One of the things that’s drawn me to this series is the world building. Having read Williams’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, I expected some elements to re-emerge in this book, but I found only echoes. In fact, I feel great care has been taken for this series to stand apart from Williams’s previous works. It is in this volume that all plots converge — and there are several — through the elements of worldbuilding in a tangible and believable way. I mentioned the use of biology and genetics in my previous reviews; that aspect is even more important here. We see more of the dreaded Autarch of Xis, understand and hate his character. We see more of the feud between the Tollys and the Eddons, and discover why the Eddons are so odd, so broken. We explore the hidden depths of Funderling Town and understand not only who the mysterious boy is, but why he’s there. We travel to the lands of the Qar and back again, wondering if Lady Yasammez will ever return.
And we see new places, locales that serve as pieces to an enormous puzzle explaining what is so important about Southmarch that caused a kingdom to fall, an ancient race to war with another, and an entire oligarchy to mobilize. Intertwined within this mess are literally dozens of characters and more stories than I can count. Some, like the focus on Briony, Barrick and Vansen, resonated more with me than characters like Merolanna or Matt Tinwright. For this reason, I recommend reading (at the very least) Shadowrise before picking up Shadowheart, not because you won’t understand what’s going on, but because the ending of these characters stories will have more of an emotional impact if you do.
Although there were signs, I didn’t expect the events in Shadowheart to unfold the way they did. Mind you, nothing in these books was abrupt or unintentional, it was just that a part of me was hoping for a happier ending to this tragic tale. When that sucker punch to the gut happens, and it definitely does, you may find yourself as conflicted as I was. Each and every character is affected by the naked pursuit of raw and unimaginable power in good, ugly and interesting ways. This conflict, moreso than the interpersonal squabbles or romances, supercedes mortality, which shoots this series for me into the epic fantasy category. In many ways, the story gets bigger as each book goes on, and Shadowheart is definitely proof of that.
So who would like this book? If you’re looking for a dark fantasy read with an expansive plot, a big world and then Shadowheart and the rest of the books in the Shadowmarch series are definitely for you.
Review by Monica Valentinelli