fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Tad Williams Shadowmarch 2. ShadowplayShadowplay by Tad Williams

On the surface, Volume 1 of Shadowmarch has all the makings of a fully realized epic fantasy: maps, appendix, a rich background history, excerpts (Book of Regret, The Book of the Trigon, Revelations of Nushash) to preface each chapter, a huge cast of characters, races, locales, gods, goddesses and much more to bring the world of Shadowmarch to life.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more involved in making a great fantasy and I felt that Shadowmarch was sorely lacking in some areas. First and foremost, the overall story is clichéd, uninspiring and predictable. Sure, some plotlines are interesting to follow like Quinnitan’s arc in the kingdom of Xis or Chert’s fun adventures, not to mention the concept behind the Shadowline/Shadowlands which offers something a bit different, but for the most part Shadowmarch is a boring, overly trite affair, particularly the scenes involving the court intrigues set in Southmarch.

To make matters worse, the characters are very formulaic — for example you have royal twins, a captain of the guard who longs for something beyond his station, a physician who dabbles in the mystical and a poet among others, not counting such fantasy tropes as Funderlings (basically dwarves), Rooftoppers (tiny people), and Qar (fairy folk) just to name a few. Fortunately, some of the narratives are engaging like the aforementioned Quinnitan and Chert Blue Quartz, and to some extent Matthias Tinwright or Captain Vansen, but then you have Princess Briony and Prince Barrick who were two of the most annoying and whiny characters that I’ve read in some time. While I understand that their particular personalities are part of their nature and integral to the overall story, it doesn’t prevent them from being irritating.

Overall, Shadowmarch was a difficult read for me. While parts of it were entertaining, I had to force myself to finish the book, and by the time I had, I wasn’t sure that I was going to continue reading the series… but I did.

And thankfully Shadowplay was a much more enjoyable read for me. For starters, the second volume in the Shadowmarch trilogy improves in almost every area over its predecessor, most noticeably with a story that is much more engaging, complex and vaster in scope. Where Shadowmarch was merely a long-winded set-up piece introducing us to characters and places and establishing history and plotlines, Shadowplay is an incessant build-up of action, suspense, and drama that picks up immediately from the cliff-hanger events of Shadowmarch and continues on until its own exciting unresolved ending.

Sure, there are still fantasy clichés and foreseeable plot twists that plague the book, but not nearly to the extent that Shadowmarch suffered from. Plus, the characters this time around are much more fun to follow. Prince Barrick, though still whiny at times, has, along with Ferras Vansen, probably the most fascinating storylines in the entire book with their journeys through the Twilight Lands, which is where we really get to see Tad Williams’ imagination soar. Even Princess Briony is entertaining to read, though I felt that her arc was still probably the weakest and most hackneyed. I was disappointed that both Chert and Quinnitan played lesser roles this time around, but new viewpoints of fresh (Pelaya, Daikonas Vo) and familiar faces (Sister Utta, Pinimmon Vash) helped to offset that while developing a couple of interesting supporting characters (the imprisoned King Olin Eddon, Sulepis the Autarch of Xis). Matt Tinwright’s narrative seemed to be the most irrelevant, but every character, no matter how big or small, plays an important part in the overall story, which should come to fruition in the final chapter of Shadowmarch, Shadowrise.

Of course, no matter the improvements in story or characterization, Shadowplay would not work if not for Tad Williams’ skills as a writer. Shadowplay does a much better job of showcasing Mr. Williams’ adeptness at world-building, establishing lore, managing numerous plotlines/subplots and creating suspenseful situations for his characters.

So what started out initially as hesitancy in continuing a series that had failed to impress me, turned out to be a surprisingly fun adventure and I’m happy that I persevered to read Shadowplay. While I would never place Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch trilogy alongside the likes of George R.R. Martin or Steven Erikson, it has been a worthwhile read that I look forward to completing.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book review Tad Williams Shadowmarch 2. ShadowplayShadowplay is the second book in Tad Williams‘ massive epic fantasy series, Shadowmarch. The plot was just starting to get really interesting when the first book ended, so I was eager to start Shadowplay. Things have gone awry in the March Kingdoms. Book two starts in chaos and things only go downhill from there. I’m not normally a reader of classic epic fantasy, since I often find things like family lineage, court politics and over-dramatic heroic battles boring. This series has all of this, but this time it seems to work for me. I’m being entertained despite the fact that this is territory I’ve visited many times before.

The story picks up right where Shadowmarch left off. You would think the second book in such a massive series would suffer a bit form middle book syndrome, but Shadowplay does not lull in the least. The point of view switches between several characters as they each deal with the changing world around them, so this keeps the story fresh without getting confusing.

There is a simple purity to Tad William’s writing that’s difficult to put my finger on, but the characters are what really make Shadowplay great. Princess Briony is continually challenged to adapt to new situations. The annoying independent streak she displayed as a noble child is the only thing keeping her alive as she fumbles through the places she now finds herself in. Then there is her twin brother Barak, who is not as likable. In fact, Barak is probably the least likable character in the entire story. The fact that his storyline pairs him with two other very strong characters is the only thing that keeps me from losing interest in him entirely. There are many other characters we follow as well, and all of them have their own enjoyable qualities that add to the overall narrative.

I have often been told that Tad Williams is an amazing writer, and it was that reputation alone that got me started on this series. I’m certainly glad I gave it a chance. I listened to this on audiobook by Brilliance Audio. It was narrated by Dick Hill, who does a wonderful job. Every character has a unique voice (that is very difficult to do when you have so many characters). Mr. Hill makes it a fun and exciting listen. I will be sure to keep my eye out for more books read by Hill.

~Justin Blazier

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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  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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  • Justin Blazier

    JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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