Book Review: Shadowplay by Tad Williams

Whew…just two minutes ago, I finally read the last page of Shadowplay. I’ve been reading this book for several months now…I don’t remember the exact date when I started it. All I know is that it’s a looooooooong book, and darn it, if it wasn’t so interesting, I would’ve put it down a long time ago.

The trend of long, thick, heavy description in fantasy is changing to giving just enough detail for the reader to imagine it, focusing more on action and activity. Williams is definitely part of the old school, going laboriously over detail, not just of scenery, but mostly of the inner thoughts of his characters—so much so that I skipped many passages when it was obvious that it was all filler.

Once I learned to recognize which passages were pertinent to the story and which was just naval-gazing filler, I was able to move through it quickly.

Shadowplay is a decent follow up to Shadowmarch. It jumps right into the story as opposed to bringing readers up to speed on what occurred at the end of the last book. Unfortunately, since my book is currently boxed up in my garage, I vaguely remembered what occurred in Shadowmarch. I knew that the country Southmarch had just lost their stand-in ruler, Kendrick to a bloody assassination, and that the remaining heirs, the royal twins Barrick and Briony, had vanished, Barrick trapped between Fae lines, Briony on the run with previously accused Master of Arms, Shaso. I remembered even less of the supporting plotlines. I did remember the girl who escaped the autarch, and I remember Maxwright Tinwright the poet. I definitely remember Ferras Vansen, who had been charged by Briony to protect Barrick. But the Funderlings storyline, with Chert finding the human boy Flint, it took me a long time to remember. And as for Sister Utta and Merolanna, I couldn’t remember them being in the first book at all and found it easier to simply treat them as new characters.

Despite my sketchy memories of the supporting characters, I enjoyed their stories more than I did the main characters, Briony and Barrick. I found the twins rather whiny and immature, which was the whole purpose of their plotline, I believe. And indeed, midway through the book, Briony does show some signs of maturity, as circumstances forces her to take some matters into her own hands. Barrick’s progress is made more palatable with Ferras Vansen’s presence, along with the fairy Gyir the Storm Lantern and the talking raven Skurn. In fact, Ferras becomes a formidable character in his own right; despite the indignity of following the commands of a mad prince, the mind-numbing terror of the fae-land around him and absolutely no sign of normalcy in sight, he holds true to his promise and slowly adjusts to his circumstances.

True to form, Williams does have some fantastical settings. The fairy court, for instance, is bizarre and otherworldly, yet strangely appealing. The autarch’s court is as frightening as its insane ruler. In contrast, the Rooftoppers are charming and intricate for their minuscule size. Williams does a good job weaving all the different stories together so there is a common thread in them.

It’s towards the end, however, that Williams truly begins to shine as the story ramps into high gear. I don’t think I did any skipping then–the action grew quite intense. It built and built…and, then it stopped. Because the book ended right there.

If this had been done by a different author, I would’ve been up in an uproar. Thrown the book and vow never to read that person’s books again. Well, unless the book was so good that I wanted to know what happened next. Then, yeah, I would get the next book. Good thing Tad Williams fall in that category. Besides, Williams ending his books abruptly is pretty much par for the course, so I wasn’t all that surprised.

I can’t say I enjoyed Shadowplay on the same level as The War of the Flowers. And it doesn’t even touch his best work by far, The Otherland series. But it was decent, and I think it worked as a vehicle to move the story to where it needed to go. I think the next book Shadowrise, which comes out in hardcover March 2 2010, would be much better. Shadowplay gets three Funderlings out of five. I originally was going to put it at two 1/2 funderlings—but the fact that I can use the book as a weight when I’m working out on the Wii gives it an extra point.

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