Reading Tad Williams: “Shadowrise’ (Volume Two of “Shadowmarch”)

I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I’d just like to say again how much of a pleasure it is to read Tad Williams. The man simply has a command of language, plot, and character that really does surpass that of most other people writing in the genre. Somehow, he manages to make the familiar elements of epic fantasy and make them into something new. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s extraordinary enough to produce one fantasy epic that has become canonical (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”), but it’s even more so to write yet another popular fantasy cycle unconnected to that one.

Shadowrise opens with all of our beloved characters scattered to the winds. Briony is in exile from her beloved Southmarch, which is now under the control of her sadistic cousin Hendon Tolly. Barrick and his companion Ferris Vansen are now trapped behind the Shadowline, condemned on a mission to go to the Qar stronghold. And Qinnitan has found shelter of a sort in the vast city of Hierosol, though it seems that she is not safe even there, for she is hotly and doggedly pursued by the soldier Daikonas Vo.

Some reviews I have read have complained about how unlikeable characters are, but I personally found that to be true only of Barrick who, though he has a tortured soul, is often insufferable, cruel, self-pitying, and needlessly cruel. That aside, I find the other characters quite enjoyable, though it has to be said that Chert Blue Quartz, with his homely wisdom and his obvious love for both Flint and Opal, makes him one of the novel’s (and the series’) most relatable and enjoyable characters to read.

Indeed, it’s always the seemingly small and insignificant characters in this world who have the greatest impact on what is to come. The royal and powerful may seem to hold sway over the political realm, but as the action unfolds it becomes more and more clear that they are themselves but pawns in a much larger game, one that may have consequences so vast as to dwarf human understanding.

I have to say, though, that probably my favourite part of the novel was the appearance of the goddess Lisiya, who thankfully appears to help Briony just when all hope seems lost. Lisiya may once have been a powerful deity but she, like so many of the other gods, has found herself subjected to the forces of time, and though she is able to give Briony the aid she needs to survive her terrible time in the forest, it clearly costs her a great deal to do so. The gods have fallen very far from the world that they once ruled.

In an interesting parallel, Lisiya is not the only godlike being who continues to eke out a living among mortals. However, while she has devoted her life to helping the forest (and the occasional wanderer) the mutilated and mad demigod Jikuyin is something else entirely, a creature determined to gain power so that he may perpetuate cruelty on destruction on all those he believes have wronged him. If Lisiya represents what happens when a goddess commits her life to the service of others, Jikuyin  is the opposite: a creature who thinks only of himself.

Indeed, it is precisely this nuanced and unique cosmology that sets this series apart from its predecessor (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”). In this world, the gods were very much alive and part of human affairs, though they were (and are) so vast in power that they dwarf humanity’s ability to fully comprehend them. Because of that, they are far more frightening than they are beneficent, at least for those who live in the shadow of their departure. In that sense, they are very similar to the pantheon of the ancient Greeks, where the gods and goddesses (as well as their numerous offspring) were as corrupt, brutal, and petty as their mortal counterparts. And, as with the ancients, there is something both reassuring and terrifying about the idea of gods being fallible, for while that brings them closer to humankind, it also means that they bring wreck and ruin in their wake.

Of course, no discussion of this book would be complete without a mentioning of the raven Skurn. From his first appearance to Vansen and Barrick, Skurn threatens to steal the show, with his idiosyncratic speech and amusing commentary on the folly of humans. It’s very difficult (I think) to write nonhuman characters who don’t become caricatures, but somehow Williams does it with Skurn.

On the other edge of the spectrum is the warrior Gyir who, while denied a viewpoint of his own in the novel (our impressions of him are conveyed through Barrick and Ferris), nevertheless becomes one of the most heroic and tragic figures in the Williams’ oeuvre. While absolutely committed to his mistress, he begins to see that perhaps, after all, humans aren’t all that bad. In the end, he’s even willing to sacrifice his life so that the others may escape and find some measure of freedom.

All in all, Shadowrise has all of the good traits of a second novel in a series without the negative ones. Here we have characters scattered to the corners of the world, but rather than bogging us down, it allows them to really grow into themselves, to determine what it is that sets them apart and what makes them who they are. By the end, events have begun to move forward, and the final cataclysm that will forever change their world has been set into motion. All that remains to be seen is how each of these characters will manage to survive what is to come and, indeed, whether there will be anything left of the world that they have fought so hard to rescue.

Stay tuned as I finally catch up to the last two volumes in this magnificent series, before I head on into the territory of “Otherland.”

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