City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams
City of Golden Shadow (1996) is the first book in Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND quartet. The complicated plot, which is set in the near future, follows a large cast of characters all over the world who have some connection to a huge but secret virtual reality simulation that eventually becomes known as Otherland. The main characters are:
- Renie Sulaweyo, a college instructor in Africa, is teaching Xabbu, a bushman from a remote African tribe, how to use the net. When Renie’s little brother Stephen, who spends a lot of time on the net, suddenly becomes comatose and the doctors can’t figure out what’s going on, Renie uses her research skills to try to discover what ails him and Xabbu offers to help.
- Orlando Gardiner, a brittle boy who is dying from progeria (a disease in which the body rapidly ages), spends most of his time in VR games where he has constructed an avatar that has become a legendary warrior. In one of his adventures, he glimpses a golden city and becomes obsessed with finding it. His friend and sidekick, Sam Fredericks, can’t deter him.
- Paul Jonas, who thinks he is a WWI soldier when we first meet him, is wandering around in Otherland, without any memory of who he really is. He feels compelled to find a woman who gave him a feather.
- Christabel, a little girl who lives on an army base, keeps visiting an elderly wheelchair-bound man against her parents’ wishes. He asks her to do strange tasks for him and to keep her activities secret.
- A psychopathic serial killer who calls himself Dread works for a man who styles himself as Osiris in Otherland. Dread’s assignments, which often involve murdering people, happen both online and in RL (real life). But Dread is not content to be some wannabe god’s lackey. He has plans for ascension.
The premise and plot of City of Golden Shadow is fascinating. I loved visiting Williams’ imaginative virtual reality worlds and hearing about the way they evolved through machine learning. As just one example, one region of Otherland belongs to a couple of researchers who have recreated the Aztec Empire and want to know how history might have unfolded if particular factors had been different. I like Williams’ characters, too. I’m worried about Stephen, Orlando, and Paul. I have no idea where this story is going but I am definitely intrigued and can’t wait to start the next book.
For a book published more than two decades ago, City of Golden Shadow feels remarkably fresh. The technology feels like it belongs to the near future and nothing feels out-of-date. The characters are diverse (a spectrum of races, disabilities, sexes, and sexual orientations), and none of them are relegated to stereotypical roles. I had no trouble believing in Williams’ near-future world.
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of Williams’ work, one “negative” for me (but it won’t be for many readers) is that it’s just so long and drawn out. The writing and dialogue are superb, but the story moves very slowly with much time spent watching characters do their mundane daily tasks, or listening to their thoughts about a variety of topics, or exploring the VR worlds (including some that don’t seem highly relevant to the plot, though it may turn out that I’m wrong about this). For character development, it’s a technique that works, but readers who prefer a faster pace may become impatient. I felt fairly tolerant of this in this first book in the series, probably because everything was new and I needed time to get comfortable in Williams’ world, and a lot did eventually happen, and the ending was quite exciting. But the story could have been condensed by about 50% without much loss, which is why I’m rating City of Golden Shadow with only 3.5 stars. The story itself deserves a higher rating, but it was unnecessarily long.
The audiobook by Penguin Audio is excellent. George Newbern is a fabulous narrator, handling Williams’ large and diverse cast with ease. The audiobook is nearly 29 hours long!
The remaining books in the quartet are: River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light.
I remember reading this series. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. Weirdly, I kinda wished it had been longer–or at least proportioned differently.
Nathan, I’ve finished the quartet (reviews coming soon). I loved the story but felt that it was twice as long as it should have been.