Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowmarch” (Volume 1 of Shadowmarch)

At long last, I’m finally getting back into the swing of blogging. It’s been a hectic month and a half (and even longer, actually), but I’m starting to feel like myself again, and the writing bug has well and truly bitten me.

Anyway, I’ve also gotten back into reading Tad Williams, who continues to be one of my primary fantasy inspirations as an aspiring author. I just finished the first volume of his “Shadowmarch” series, which I’ve actually read before but wanted to re-read. As always, I’m glad that I decided to plunge again into his works, as there is a distinct pleasure to be gained from reading books that you already know.

Though similar in some respects to his earlier fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Shadowmarch” is a different creature and asks different questions through its narrative and its characters. This is a world that lives in the shadow of the gods and must contend with their foibles and their legacies, even if the gods themselves exist in a world beyond the flesh (for the moment, anyway).

As the story begins, the royal twins Briony and Barrick Eddon, along with their elder brother Kendrick, struggle with the absence of their father Olin, who has been imprisoned by the robber-baron Lord Protector of Hierosol, Ludis Drakava. After the murder of their brother Kendrick, matters in the kingdom begin to unravel quite quickly, particularly since the Qar, the immortal enemies of humankind, launch an attack on the lands of humans. To the south, the Autarch takes the young woman Qinnitan as his wife, but she eventually escapes. By the end of the novel, all of the various characters have been cast to the winds.

Though sprawling, the novel has a strong pacing to it, alternating between periods of breathtaking action and quiet contemplation. As he always does, Williams imbues his narrative with several mysteries, some of which are resolved by the end but many of which (particularly the larger, cosmological ones) remain hovering in our consciousness until the very last page. It’s these enigmas that give even the novel’s quieter moments a peculiar energy that keeps the reader coming back for more.

However, there is also a darkness running beneath this series that wasn’t as obvious in “MST.” This is a world poised on the edge of absolute destruction, but not in the way that most epic settings are. There isn’t the sense that this catastrophe can (or should) be averted by the actions of mortals; instead, they must simply weather the storm as best they can and hope that at least some part of their world remains intact. Though many of the gods may have been banished from the world in a great theomachy, their influence is still felt among their feuding descendants and adherents, none of whom seem able to grasp the enormity of the cosmos in its totality.

What really makes this book shine, however, are the characters. Here are Chert Blue Quartz, a member of a race of miners and craftsmen known as the Funderlings. There are the royal twins Briony and Barrick, the former chafing at the restrictions placed on her sex and the latter tormented by the possibility that he may be afflicted by his family’s hereditary madness. There is Ferris Vansen, a guard captain devoted to a hopeless love for his princess. Lastly, there is Qinnitan, a lowly priestess in the great city of Xis who has the (mis)fortune to be chosen as a wife for the mad despot the Autarch. And there’s even a debauched musician and poet made Matty Tinwright.

All of these characters, both the high and the low, are drawn with depth and care. Though they are not always likable or sympathetic, and while their actions are sometimes infuriating, that’s precisely what makes them human. As he always does, Williams manages to capture how it feels to be caught up in events so large that they defy mortal understanding. It’s small wonder that they sometimes act in ways that defy logic and rationality. Who wouldn’t act in that way, when confronted with a world turned topsy-turvy?

Like all good initial entries in a series, this book ends in a state of suspended crisis. By the end, we’re not sure just how these characters will manage to extricate themselves, and we’re left with the unsettling sense that it just might be that there is no truly, unalloyed happy ending for them. And that is a very unsettling possibility indeed.

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