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Shadowplay Review

Posted on February 26, 2007 by Flames


Available at Amazon.com

Book Two of the Shadowmarch Trilogy
Written by Tad Williams

Shadowplay is the second book in the Shadowmarch series, written by veteran novelist Tad Williams. Truthfully, I have not read Shadowmarch, the first of the three books in this trilogy—but I have read almost every other book that Williams has ever published. Picking up Shadowplay was an experiment, in the sense that I wasn’t sure whether or not I would need to read the first book. The result?

Shadowplay has very little recap from its predecessor—you can glean the details as you read on—and the first hundred pages proved difficult to me as a reader simply because I hadn’t read the events leading up to the scattering of the royal Eddon family and the takeover by the Tollys. Whether you might feel that’s my flaw as a reader or Williams’ choice as a writer, I strongly suggest that, if you’re interested in the story, begin at the beginning.

In Williams’ Otherland series, he takes many liberties with the story by drawing a diverse group of characters; I was surprised just how well this technique translated to Shadowplay. As fantasy lands go, the world of the March kingdoms is a well-contrasted painting of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Shaso, Princess Briony’s protector, for example, is darker-skinned and he does remark upon their differences during their adventures together. The tension between the two characters, however, is more based on Shaso’s past with the royal family than on the distinctions between their two races. In many fantasy novels, “Southern” races are darker-skinned and typically portrayed as barbarians, indigenous villagers, or fishermen. Not so in this novel, not only because Briony finds out Shaso is more than what he has claimed–but also because Shaso is a “true” hero who protects Briony with his life.

When things eventually turn worse for Briony, it is not because “the evil Southern folk” sold her out; a single youth’s impetuousness serves as her betrayer. As Briony travels the kingdoms of the March in disguise, she is overwhelmed–with good reason–by the world she was thrown into without a tour guide. Throughout her exploits, she is humiliated, humbled, shocked, afraid, curious, lonely and desperate. Her many-layered emotions propel her character forward; yet she is not a fragrant summer flower that wilts at the first sign of intense heat. Briony’s path ends on a cliffhanger, her meanderings to safety are eventually guided by a demi-goddess who provides Briony with an alternate story to the religious dogma that everyone else knows.

These small details serve a greater purpose in the Shadowmarch trilogy. As you read through the stories of Briony, Barrick, Tinswright, Chert, Vansen, and so many others, you will realize that this is a modern fairytale in the sense that Williams’ has thrown away the outdated contrivances that are so rampant within fantasy writing, and has given us a story we can all relate to.

At the heart of Shadowplay lies a scattered sense of awareness about this world and its functional rules; Williams strings many stories together to provide us with a clearer view of what this world is–no doubt to set us up for an intense ending that will shake the ground beneath Barrick and Briony. Barrick also sets out on a journey in this book, with Vansen serving as his protector and a few unlikely allies joining their ranks. This strand of the story is particularly important for magic, psychics, and faeries are not ethereal and intangible as they are in other fantasy tales–they are biological, gritty, and bleeding. As such, Yasammez’ motivation for her invasion turns into something understandable and necessary; the Eddons’ plight appears to be nothing in comparison to the unraveling of an ancient promise that threatens to doom every living thing.

While other characters’ stories are explored in this novel, their adventures ebb and flow in-between the major events. The “plight” of the nobles seems pale in comparison to the “flight” of the Eddons, with two exceptions. Doctor Chaven’s cause, his obsession with a “mirror,” and his expectations of his Funderling friend Chert, deepen the overall plot without giving too much away. In the same regard, Quinnitan’s escape from the autarch hints that she is more than what she appears. Most (if not all) of the several characters written in this 641-page novel, follow a path to a crossroads in their story. Masterfully written, the changing points-of-view converge and weave together flawlessly–a sign of an experienced writer who knows his craft.

The book ends abruptly, there is little resolution to much of the characters’ plights; reading this book is almost like being in the middle of a tornado. You feel the wind blow past your face, carrying everything with it that it can, only to set down a house or car or cow miles away in a strange and alien landscape. Those who are familiar with Williams’ writing style will notice a definitive shift in the way he crafts his sentences and paragraphs. The pacing is exactly what it needs to be; the characters are realistic, and the storyline has so many layers to it you can’t help but wonder how much work went into mapping out the three novels.

As a reader, I highly recommend that you read the books in order, to fully grasp the story’s arc as it dives into Book Three. As a reviewer, I suggest this book simply because Williams is not (and never has been) a canned fantasy writer who relies on gimmicks and tired fantasy conventions to tell his stories. The first fantasy trilogy since Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Williams has managed to take an old concept and freshen it up a bit with a new way of storytelling in Shadowmarch, and Shadowplay.

Reviewer: Monica Valentinelli

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