Gregory Frost graduated from Clarion Workshop, authored five novels and the critically-acclaimed short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories, and has been a finalist for nearly every major award in the fantasy field including the Hugo, the Nebula, the James Tiptree, and the World Fantasy Award.
Impressive, but what did I think of Shadowbridge? Well, for the most part I enjoyed reading Shadowbridge and while I may have liked the novel, I can’t say that I loved it.
It was the concept that really grabbed my attention. Gregory Frost’s book introduces a world that is comprised mainly of ocean and the Shadowbridge, a seemingly never-ending bridge that is divided into numerous spirals and spans, each with their own unique set of cultures, wonders and stories. Into this fascinating milieu we have Leodora, a young woman masquerading as a man, who in turn is becoming the most popular shadow-puppeteer since the legendary Bardsham. Shadow-puppeteers are storytellers who use puppets and shadows to convey the many astonishing tales of Shadowbridge, but also they are collectors of stories — and that was the device that I found most appealing in Mr. Frost’s book. You see, while the main narrative focuses primarily on Leodora and her troupe (reconnaissance man Soter and Diverus the musician) the novel is frequently interjected with various fables and stories-within-stories which I found to be Shadowbridge‘s most compelling aspect.
In particular, I really enjoyed the different short stories, which included “The Tale of Shumyzin,” “The Tale of Creation,” “Bardsham’s Tale,” “The Emperor,” “How Death Came to Shadowbridge,” and “The Story of Missansha.” In addition to those, we also get to relive Leodora’s coming-of-age tale that chronicles her journey from gutting fish in a backwater village to becoming a great shadow-puppeteer. Moreover, we get to learn Leodora’s connection to Bardsham, why her deceased mother was known as the ‘Red Witch,’ and a bit about the process that goes into shadowplaying. Perhaps my favorite story of all though was Diverus’ which relates the boy’s extraordinary metamorphosis from a mute, deficient child into a god-blessed musician who can play any instrument with euphoric results. Specifically in this tale I was impressed with the idea of the dragon beam — a designated place where people go to worship in hopes that the gods will grant them gifts — and the paidika where Diverus was employed, which offered a unique addiction for its clientele.
Because of the stories-within-stories format I was reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, which was one reason that I enjoyed Shadowbridge. Unfortunately, unlike Ms. Valente’s duology, I thought Frost’s novel faltered in a couple of key areas. First and foremost was the characterization. Of the three main characters, only Diverus really connected with me but, strangely, once his path crosses with Leodora’s he sort of becomes a forgotten third wheel which is a real shame because he had some interesting dynamics to offer such as his newly awakened awareness and the ‘dreamlife’ that he experiences when playing music. Soter, meanwhile, got the least amount of face-time and was also probably the most generic character in the book. ‘Nuff said. Then there’s Leodora. While there’s no doubt that Leodora is the book’s main protagonist, her most distinguishing features are her profession and her heritage. Take those away and there’s really nothing special about the girl as a character, especially compared to the much more intriguing Diverus.
Secondly, I had a problem with the worldbuilding. As fascinating a world as Shadowbridge is, the author doesn’t spend that much time establishing its uniqueness apart from the mythology. I mean sure, we get enough information to know that each span is a bit different from the other, that societies exist under the bridge, that many wondrous creatures co-exist in the world like gods, sea dragons, demigods, avatars, elves, Kitsunes and mer-folk, but for the most part, it’s just superficial glimpses. For instance, what do we actually learn about the spans that we get to visit?…Ningle’s people are superstitious and enforce a strict policy regarding their women; most of Vijnagr pertains to the dragon beam and the paidika that we learn about in Diverus’ tale; Hyakiyako is haunted by a mysterious parade; and Colemaigne was once “made of spun sugar and other confections” and contains fountains with wine in them. Interesting stuff to be sure, but where are all of the religions, laws, philosophies and other aspects that could have been explored? Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought Gregory could have done a lot more with the world of Shadowbridge.
Finally, as far as the prose and structure of the book, I once again found myself comparing the novel to The Orphan’s Tales, and once again Shadowbridge comes up a bit short. Starting with the prose, Gregory Frost is a talented writer, don’t get me wrong, but his writing style seemed to lack the poetic elegance that made Ms. Valente’s duology shine so much. It’s not that Frost doesn’t have the capability because a number of the short stories in Shadowbridge really stand out; it’s more that the book lacks any consistency. This is also a problem with the structure of the novel. Between juggling the main narrative and interjecting the various ‘fables,’ the book just didn’t seem to fit together seamlessly and as a result, the pacing was a bit disjointed. This also extends to the book’s ending; There is a cliffhanger. Nothing wrong with that, except the novel doesn’t seem to come to a natural stopping point. I’m only speculating here, but I’m thinking that Shadowbridge was originally written as a single volume and then split into two parts (Lord Tophet being the second). If that’s the case, then I think the ending to Shadowbridge needs a little bit more work.
Despite all of the comparisons to The Orphan’s Tales, Gregory Frost’s new book definitely distinguishes itself from other novels and is one of the many reasons why fantasy lovers looking for something a bit different to read should consider Shadowbridge. An imaginative backdrop, fascinating mythology, and plenty of mysteries to unravel in the next volume — the fate of Bardsham and Leodora’s mother, Soter’s tale, The Coral Man, the Agents, a demigod’s warning — are all convincing arguments as well. Granted, I thought the execution was a bit sloppy, and a couple of areas noticeably suffer, but I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the book, because if you can look past these issues, I think you’ll find Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge to be a unique and memorable reading experience that will be even more fulfilling if Lord Tophet completes the tale.
“One of the figures, in a long coat, leaned around from the back edge and held up a disk as if about to hand it to her. It looked like a shell strung on a necklace that, instead of circling his throat, plugged into his ears. What could that possibly be? And what legend could it be from?
The next figure above him didn’t help her, either. Painted black, with spiked blue hair, sharp-tipped ears and red eyes like flames, the figure’s identity eluded her, too.”
In the first chapter of Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, a god animates a statue to talk to Leodora. Leodora is a wanderer, a storyteller, a collector of stories and a shadow-puppeteer who performs in male guise as she journeys along the various spans of Shadowbridge. The world of Shadowbridge itself is the greatest creation in this book.
The bridge is the world, basically, a series of spirals and spans, each with its own collection of cultures, subcultures, mythology and magic. Leodora, her mentor Soter and the musician Diverus are outcasts, for various reasons, from their own spans. Shadowbridge has strange customs, gods who play an active role in people’s lives, and many different stories about how their world was created. The story of how Leodora and Diverus fit into their world is mostly a mystery. Leodora is the daughter of Bardsham, the most famous shadow-puppeteer, and in Soter’s opinion, Leodora surpasses him. Leodora can see to the heart of a story, changing it to make it live and breathe for the audience who watches it. The god, though, warns her that she is “rattling the darkness,” and this is not a good thing.
Frost shares the stories Leodora collects, and also tells us about her childhood. Leodora has ridden a sea-dragon, stolen the mysterious “coral man” figure, and been cast out of her village for being a witch. She inadvertently rescues Diverus from a brothel where the clients partake of vivid dreams created by afrit, who feed upon the energy of beautiful boys.
Shadowbridge features a wonderfully described world. Frost has a gift for the unique but apt metaphor, such as, “Melancholy joined her then, a late-rising twin,” or this passage, where young Leodora and her beaten-down aunt eat dinner while they await the return of her uncle:
… While Leodora wondered about Soter’s ghosts, so her aunt appeared preoccupied with where her uncle might be. Their unease they shared as if it were a condiment, but neither would speak of it.
Magic blows across the spans of Shadowbridge like moist ocean breezes. There are afrits, sea dragons and a parade of monsters that travels to the end of time — a parade that sweeps up Leodora and Diverus. There is magic in each span and in the dragon bowls that line the bridge itself.
I liked this part of the book very much. I enjoyed the mystery of Leodora’s parents, and her destiny; and I loved the stories she sought out. I didn’t care as much for the characters. There is little warmth or caring demonstrated by the principals, and secondary characters are one-note: the Downtrodden Woman, the Vicious Uncle, the Hidebound Villagers, the Jaded Pimp (which, as I write it, looks like it should be the name of a shady pub in another epic fantasy somewhere). It isn’t that characters aren’t interesting and much as it is the degree of distance they have from the reader. The hard-drinking Soter escapes being a stereotype only because of the importance of the secrets he is holding, which are gradually being revealed as the book ends — on a cliffhanger.
The story of Leodora, Diverus and Soter is completed in the sequel, Lord Tophet. I hope these characters will open up more and become more engaging, but even if they don’t, I will still read it, just to be carried into the world created by Frost’s shimmering, precise prose.
Nice review. This one of those books I keep finding myself pondering, but I’ve never picked-up because its just not the kind of fantasy I ususally enjoy.
There is just something intriguing about living on bridges. Why is that I wonder? And the cover illustration makes it even more I inviting. Or is that just me?
Greg, it’s not just you. Bridges are fascinating and so is the idea of living on them — and I thought the cover art really captured the spirit of the story.
I really loved this book, particularly (like Marion) for the creation of an amazing world. I liked it more than Marion did, too, and would have rated it much higher (at least in retrospect; maybe that’s because I’ve already read Lord Tophet and know what to expect).
well I guess its back on my TBR list.. :)
I tried to read this once and stalled out — never could figure out why. Certainly the writing was beautiful and the bridges were intriguing and the plot themes were ones I usually like.