Shadowmarch is the start of yet another epic fantasy trilogy by one of the genre’s better known authors. While I wouldn’t personally equate Shadowmarch with Tad Wiliams‘ earlier masterpiece (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn), it does stand above much of what is being written today. As is typical of fantasy, for that matter most genre novels, there are echoes of earlier works by the same author and other works by different authors. One grows to expect that; it isn’t the complete and utter originality that often makes a work but what one does with the similar situations/characters. By that comparison, Shadowmarch does quite well, for the most part.
The basic premise is the Southmarch lands border the Shadowline, a magical barrier between the lands of man (in a very broad manner) and the lands of the Q’ar, the Faerie race that once lived alongside man but was driven out ages ago when man hysterically blamed them for the onset of a plague. Now the Q’ar are ready to take their lands back. Meanwhile, to the south, a great empire under the god-king Autarch is gobbling up lands and threatening Southmarch and its fellow small countries from that direction. Southmarch is in disarray as King Eddon is being held for ransom in one of the smaller countries between the Autarch and Southmarch. His three children, Kendrick, Barrick, and Briony must deal with the political infighting among their neighbors, the human threat of the Autarch, the supernatural threat of the Q’ar streaming across the Shadowline, as well as assassination attempts, possible family madness, an inopportune offer of marriage, suspicion of all they once held close, and on the list goes. Two other major sideplots involve one of the Autarch’s many brides (this plot never merges with Southmarch in this novel but clearly will eventually) and a funderling named Chert who finds a mysterious “big person” child tossed across the Shadowline by the Q’ar and adopts him.
This only covers part of the plot, so its complexity should be pretty obvious. Shadowmarch is not a fast-paced book, don’t expect a lot of pitched battles or fiery oratory or major questing. It is an introductory book to a massive work and it allows all the stories and their corresponding complexities to unfold at a leisurely pace. Will some find it slow? Probably, but the stories and most of the characters are compelling enough that I don’t think it ever lags. As an introductory novel, there are more questions than answers by the end, leaving the reader wanting more despite having just finished 600 or so pages.
The characters vary in their depth. There are a lot of them, some more major than others, but there are enough important ones that sometimes they get short shrift. Briony is pretty full-featured, though one wishes that as she changes due to her increasing responsibilities that Williams would have let us simply see/feel those changes rather than have Briony or others point them out to us (“she was harder… “). Barrick’s story is intriguing, but his character languishes a bit, too often is given little on-page time and when he is present it’s too often in whining, passive fashion. This begins to change toward the end in welcome fashion and his seems destined for much more in book two. Chert, the funderling delver, is probably the best drawn character and his side-story involving the mysterious child has many positive elements — tension, suspense, humor, sorrow, passion. It’s in many ways the best of the stories. The one involving the Autarch’s young new wife is less successful. Partially because it has an overly-familiar feel to it plot-wise, partially because it’s so disconnected from the rest of the story though obviously that will change, partially because it’s so predictable, unlike the rest of the stories. A far more successful character is the guard captain in love with Briony (he keeps this to himself for obvious reasons) who for various reasons ends up heavily involved in both the war with the Q’ar and the other more human threats. His character is richly drawn and the time Williams takes with him is well-spent.
Finally, it’s always a pleasure to see Williams’ view of the fairie, which tends to be much more dark and diverse than most authors. If anything, there is too little from their perspective and one hopes for more in the next novels. The language is heightened and the creativity picks up several notches in their sections.
The ending, if one can say this after 600 pages, seems a bit rush, has a bit of anti-climax to it, a bit of deus ex machina that is unexplained, but these are relatively minor flaws and the questions it leaves are much more interesting than the answers it gives.
Fans of Tad Williams’ earlier work will see clear echoes and might think it pales a bit to Sorrow (or Otherworld though personally I wasn’t a fan of that series and think this better). Fans of George R.R. Martin’s series will note clear similarities that should be chalked up to genre rather than theft. If I had to choose, I’d say Martin’s is a bit better (much more so in dealing with the political), but there isn’t a huge gulf. And in comparison to much of what’s out there, Shadowmarch, like Martin’s, is a step (or more) above. Strongly recommended.
The plot of Shadowmarch is rather complex, but the basics of the story are simple. Three groups vie for time in the main storyline. First and foremost are the lands of Southmarch, ruled for many generations by the Eddon family. Directly to their north are the lands of the Q’ar. The Q’ar are the fairy folk, long ago driven out of the southern regions by humans. The Q’ar have not let the many years soften their bitterness and hatred of humans. The third group involved in the story inhabit the desert kingdom of Xis to the far south, and they are ruled by the not so nice god-king Autarch. The fairies want their land back, and the southern-based god-king wants everything. The Eddons and the people of Southmarch simply want to survive. The narrative flows back and forth mainly between these three locations, telling the story from the perspective of several individuals in each of the three geographic areas.
Shadowmarch is essentially one ginormous prologue. It is in this book that you become intimately familiar with all the major players in the Shadowmarch series. It is a very entertaining read despite the fact that its main purpose is to set you up for the remaining books. My summary does not do the complexities of the plot justice. There is so much going on that I would have to write a book of equal size just to explain it all to you. Don’t run away just yet, it’s not as bad as it sounds! Tad Williams is amazingly adept at weaving complex stories in a digestible manner. I ran away from huge epic fantasies because I was growing weary of books filled with overly complex family lineages and violently tragic storylines. Shadowmarch has been my antidote, and has renewed an excitement for long epic fantasy that I thought I’d lost some time ago.
Shadowmarch has a large number of major characters. Some get more time than others, but in general the attention is spread fairly evenly among them. The most prominent characters are the Eddon twins, Briony and Barrack. A large portion of the book is spent with those two and their dealings in and around Southmarch castle. The next in line would probably be Chert the Funderling. Funderlings are a dwarflike people who are the miners and stone craftsmen of Southmarch. Chert’s story centers on a strange boy he finds near the northern border close to the lands of the Q’ar. Chert is probably my favorite character. He is funny, intelligent, and kind, and his stone-themed curses never failed to make me chuckle. The characters I just mentioned are only the Southmarch cast. There are also the fairies of Q’ar and the Autarch’s people in Xis, who provide the left and right to Southmarch’s center stage.
I’m very glad I decided to tackle this seemingly daunting series. I have not read any of Tad’s other works, but if they are anything like this, then I just increased my TBR pile exponentially. I listened to Shadowmarch on audio CD by Brilliance Audio. Shadowmarch is narrated by Dick Hill, and he is nothing short of brilliant. Mr. Hill is one of those voice actors who act their parts rather than simply read them. I was enthralled with his performance. I actually own the print version and have never read it, but when Brilliance sent me the audio version I could no longer ignore it. I will continue to choose the audio version over the print version for Shadowmarch.
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.