Shadowheart is the concluding fourth volume of Tad Williams’ most recent trilogy (yes, yes, I know), following Shadowmarch, Shadowplay, and Shadowrise. The last was originally intended to finish the series but instead was split in half, leading to Shadowheart. The first book, Shadowmarch, started off a bit slow and had some issues I thought with pace and cliché. Shadowplay was a large improvement in nearly all facets, Shadowrise kept to the higher quality, and Shadowheart, I’m happy to say, mostly ends it all in strong fashion.
The plot, which has been wide-ranging in terms of geography and multiple plot strands, has narrowed to a single point, centering on the Eddon family’s seat, the castle Southmarch, whose caverns below the castle were the site of an ancient battle between gods which resulted in the gods banished and the portal closed behind them. But the mad Autarch of Xis has forged his empire as a weapon to slice open the path to the castle so as to gain the power of the gods for himself, and in Shadowheart he’s finally reached his goal. One Eddon twin, Briony has returned with a small army she’s managed to collect thanks to a young prince hoping to wed her. The other Eddon twin, Barrick, has returned as well, but is more Qar (faerie) than human thanks to the magical Fireflower inside him which gives him all the memories of past Qar kings, as well as some level of authority among them. Meanwhile, under Southmarch, the human captain Ferras Vansen leads an ever-dwindling group of Funderlings (Qar dwarfs) in an impossible battle against the Autarch, hoping against hope that the Qar army, which had originally come to battle the humans, will join with them against the greater threat. There are a few other plot lines as well, along with dozens of characters, but that quick little summary gives a rough idea of the main story line.
With everything coming to a head here, Williams has sacrificed some of his plot variation (a strength in the earlier books) for a much more streamlined storyline. What he loses in variety, though, he makes up for with a greater sense of urgency as nearly everybody is in a race against time, with the fast-approaching deadline of Midsummer’s Eve (when the Autarch can perform his rite) looming over all. While this makes for mostly compelling reading, I do think Williams would have been better served had he managed to cut out 200-300 pages from the last two books and thus allowed for an even faster pace, one that matches the urgency a bit more faithfully. And I’m not sure all the juggled plot strands are actually necessary here. One, involving the usurper Tolly, for instance, adds very little to the story (is basically a weaker echo of the Autarch story) and could have been cut (along with its little spin-off plots) without losing much. Another plot, involving a sort of “ultimate weapon” also bears little fruit, feeling much more like an afterthought rather than a built-in storyline. Cutting these two, and perhaps a bit more, would also have let us spend a bit more time with some more rewarding characters who get lost a bit, such as Chert, one of my favorite characters from the earlier novels.
Briony’s storyline is relatively strong as she tries to find her place in this upside-down world: is she queen of the Eddons now that her father and brother are gone? Is she tag-along to the prince who hopes to wed her? Can she regain the throne from the usurper Tolly, and is that even the biggest priority anymore?
Barrick’s plot, until the near-end, is less action-oriented than Briony’s, more introspective, as he must find some way to integrate the Fireflower into himself before its power and knowledge and alien nature kills him. His slow movement away from his human self, and his growing relationship with the Qar queen (as well as her sister) is mesmerizing and as captivating as the battles being fought (though his own battles are great in their own right).
But for me, the best part of the plot was that involving Vansen and the Funderlings, who know they’re pretty much fighting a losing battle but plan to lose it as slowly and in as costly a fashion as possible. Their slow retreat ever downward is a tour de force. It’s the opposite of those grand battles we’ve grown used to in epic fantasy, but it’s no less thrilling and in many ways much more moving.
The climax of Shadowheart is truly epic in scale, involving gods and giants and magic swords and desperate plans and a brave bat and… yes, I said a brave bat. It all works but what is most surprising about it all is that it doesn’t come close to ending the novel. Williams takes a big risk here and goes on for another 125 pages or so, giving us ending after ending. I can’t say we needed all 125, but 100? Sure.
Beyond the plot, the characterization is mostly sharp, especially Vansen, King Olin Eddon, the two Qar royal sisters, several of the Funderlings, the Roof-Toppers, and several others of the Qar. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed following the main characters (most of them), I thought the side characters represented Williams’ best characterization. They were revealed in efficient fashion with vivid moments of dialogue or gesture, as compared to the main characters where sometimes I wished I were told less of their thoughts or changes and could have been allowed to simply witness them.
Finally, one of my favorite aspects of Williams, here and elsewhere in his writing, is how his view of the Faerie world is so much more diverse than most other fantasy authors. Where all too many give us the usual tall, lithe, and fair (not to mention good with a bow and with animals) stock type, and occasionally someone will give us two or three variants on that (their “dark” cousins), with the Shadow series they vary in size — some giant, some small enough to fit in your hand, color, shape, limbs, even substance and form as some seem mere flames in their armor. Even better, they vary in their politics and personality: rather than the usual monolithic portrayal, we see them fighting among themselves, mistrusting each other; and instead of the typical “aloof elf” presentation, we get funny Qar, nostalgic Qar, and bad-tempered Qar. In other words, we get an author willing to mirror the human range. It’s an incredible palette of creativity and my only complaint is we didn’t spend more time with them.
The Shadowmarch series isn’t without its problems. The first book starts off slowly, there are pacing issues throughout, the entire series probably could lose 300-400 pages, some of the actions and characters are a bit familiar. On the other hand, the prose is always sharp, the characters grow, the plot picks up, emotions ride deeper, the worldbuilding is vivid, and by the end, you’ve been more than fairly rewarded for the time put into reading the entire series. Well-recommended.
Here is Robert’s review of both Shadowrise and Shadowheart:
CLASSIFICATION: Tad Williams’ SOUTHMARCH series is traditional epic fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordanand J.R.R. Tolkien, complete with a fully realized secondary world, a huge cast of characters, magic, maps, and a story that pits good versus evil.
FORMAT/INFO: Shadowheart is 730 pages long divided over a Prelude/Epilude, four Parts, and fifty-four numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Child’s Book of the Orphan, and His Life and Death and Reward in Heaven.” It also includes five maps, two Appendixes, and synopses of the three previousSouthmarch novels. Narration is in the third-person via Barrick Eddon, Briony Eddon, Ferras Vansen, Chert Blue Quartz, Matt Tinwright, Qinnitan, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Pinimmon Vash, Sister Utta, Beetledown, etc.Shadowheart is the fourth and final volume in the Southmarch series. November 30, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Shadowheart via DAW. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood. The UK edition will be published on February 3, 2011 via Orbit UK.
ANALYSIS: Since Tad Williams’ SHADOWMARCH series was originally planned as a trilogy before the decision to split the final volume into two books, I felt it was more appropriate to review Shadowrise and Shadowheart together…
On its own, Shadowrise would be a difficult novel to review. After all, the book only tells half of the series’ intended conclusion, and the feeling of incompleteness is painfully obvious. For one, Shadowrise does not end naturally so much as it just stops in the middle of the story. To make matters worse, the author spends the majority of the novel setting up characters and events for the series’ grand finale, and as a result, the book offers very little reward or payoff for the reader apart from some interesting revelations regarding the connection between the Qar and the Eddons, the importance of Southmarch, and the autarch’s sinister plan. Fortunately,Shadowrise continues the strong performance that was found in Shadowplay, highlighted by Barrick Eddon’s extraordinary adventures behind the Shadowline — involving Skurn, the Dreamless, Sleepers, Silkins, Shrikers, Tine Fay and the Twilight People’s ancient home, Qul-na-Qar — and Briony Eddon’s familiar, yet entertaining trials in the court of Syan.
From a personal standpoint, I felt Shadowrise was a step down from Shadowplay, in part due to the novel acting mainly as a setup piece where hardly anything of importance occurs, and partly because the book often drags along, especially for the first couple of hundred pages. However, after finishing Shadowheart — which I read immediately after completing Shadowrise, and which is how I would recommend reading the two books — I had a much better appreciation for why the conclusion was split into two volumes. By doing so, Tad Williams was given the necessary time to fully develop his characters and subplots, all of which comes to fruition inShadowheart…
From the opening Prelude which chronicles Sulepis Bishakh’s rise to power as the newest Autarch of Xis, to the closing Epilude which reveals the final fate of the merchant Raemon Beck, Shadowheart is a nearly perfect finish to the Shadowmarch saga. Finally, readers are rewarded for all of the long hours and thousands of pages devoted to the series, with an ending that is simply epic: the Autarch’s plot to awaken and enslave a god. Hendon Tolly’s own insidious bid for celestial power. Briony Eddon’s quest to free Southmarch and her people from Hendon Tolly’s rule. Barrick Eddon’s return to Southmarch as the new bearer of the male half of the Fireflower. Matt Tinwright’s struggle for survival while serving as Avin Brone’s eyes and ears against Hendon Tolly. Ferras Vansen and the badly outnumbered Funderlings’ desperate attempts to prevent the Autarch’s army from reaching the Shining Man. Qar fighting alongside humans, Rooftoppers, Skimmers and Funderlings. Qinnitan’s attempts to escape her captors, both the Autarch and Daikonas Vo. Vo’s own desperate struggles to free himself from the basiphae that is slowly killing him. Olin Eddon’s gamble regarding Pinimmon Vash, the paramount minister of Xis. Yasammez’s deadly failsafe — the Fever Egg — to prevent the Sleeping Gods from awakening. Chert Blue Quartz’s risky last-resort plan… these and many other subplots and characters converge at Southmarch on Midsummer Night in a series of climactic events that will take your breath away.
Amazingly though, as memorable and breathtaking as these events are, the convergence at Southmarch does not even represent the best that Shadowheart has to offer. That honor instead, goes to the wonderful aftermath, which consists of the novel’s final one hundred-plus pages. Who lives? Who dies? Will love triumph over duty? Will families reunite? Will there be peace between the Qar and humankind? Will traitors be exposed? The answers to these and several other burning questions are not always the ones readers might expect or desire, but they are all fitting, as is the satisfactory manner in which Tad Williams ties up the series’ loose ends (the mysterious Flint, Anissa, etc.), while leaving open the opportunity to return to this setting in the future if he so desires.
As I mentioned earlier though, Shadowheart is not perfect. The subplot involving the Fever Egg felt forced and underdeveloped, and is one I could have lived without, along with the subplots concerning the hooded man and Dawet dan-Farr. I also felt some of the characters added very little to the novel (Kayyin, Willow, Sister Utta, Shadow’s Cauldron), while other characters I wish had been given more face time including Olin Eddon, Yasammez, Daikonas Vo, Qinnitan, and Chaven. Then there’s the pacing, which is a bit lethargic at times, a problem considering the novel’s hefty page count. Also, because the series uses a number of common fantasy tropes, many of Shadowheart’s major outcomes are easy to predict, although the author does throw out a couple of unexpected surprises along the way. Finally, between Shadowrise and Shadowheart, I felt that one or two hundred pages could have been edited out of the books without losing anything critical to the series’ conclusion. All in all though, these are fairly minor issues that do not detract from the novels’ overall enjoyment.
Writing-wise, it is impossible to praise the SHADOWMARCH novels, especially Shadowheart, without talking about Tad Williams. While I was less than impressed with the author’s efforts in the first Shadowmarch novel, Tad Williams’ performance from Shadowplay all the way through the end of Shadowheart, was just a thing of beauty. Characterization that allows characters to grow and evolve — in particular Barrick & Briony Eddon — while providing insights to help the reader understand and empathize with them; world-building that is creative and deep; the ability to juggle numerous plotlines without losing sight of the end goal; prose that is detailed, elegant and accessible; exploring thought-provoking issues on everything from faith, prejudice and duty to cowardice, love and death; all this and more was handled by Tad Williams like the veteran writer that he is, and without the skills of someone like a Tad Williams at the controls, I don’t think the SHADOWMARCH saga would have been nearly as compelling.
CONCLUSION: Tad Williams’ SHADOWMARCH series may have gotten off to a rocky start in the opening volume, but by the time Shadowheart rolled around, I could hardly contain my excitement at finally completing the series, and both Shadowrise and Shadowheart deliver. Unfortunately, because I have not read any of Tad Williams’ other novels, I can’t offer any comparisons to the author’s earlier work, but from the viewpoint of someone who loves to read epic fantasy, Shadowrise and Shadowheart are as good an ending to a fantasy saga as I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Shadowmarch — (2004-2010) Publisher: Williams opens another of the intricate, intriguing sagas that are his stock-in-trade. In a once turbulently conflicted land of humans, elves, and dwarves, an old truce is starting to unravel. The frontier called the Shadowline, between the Twilight Lands and those of humans, is being breached. The first Marchlands kingdom in the path of Twilight invaders is in disarray, for its king is a prisoner, and not all accept his elder son’s regency. What’s more, the cruel empire of the south is moving north. So the Marchlands are caught between two foes while having to deal with internal intrigues and inexperienced rulers. When the prince regent is killed, apparently by one of his closest advisors, the surviving regents are an impetuous princess and a disabled prince. Trust at court and in the kingdom dwindles even as Twilight forces attack, and responsibilities the princess never dreamed of or prepared for fall upon her.
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