Shadowrise is Tad Williams’ third and thus concluding novel of the Shadowmarch trilogy, begun in Shadowmarch and continued in Shadowplay. So in this final volume… wait, hold on… I’m now being told that Williams, clearly feeling a sense of fantasy author peer pressure, has decided that, yes, while this is the “concluding volume,” it has in fact been split into two (hmmm, where have I heard that before), making this trilogy, in usual fantasy fashion, four books. At least. Maybe five. Who knows?
In truth though, I’ve found the degree to which this sort of thing annoys me is in direct inverse relation to the quality of the books themselves. And I can’t say I found myself particularly upset that Williams has extended Shadowmarch another five hundred pages or so. Or, you know, another thousand.
Book one was a typical starter novel: relatively slow-paced so as to introduce character, setting, necessary background information, etc. and leaving the reader with more questions than answers. It had its issues, was a bit uneven in its treatment of character and various storylines, but I found it mostly compelling throughout and found that Williams’ characteristically sharp writing more than compensated for the few flaws and found ways to make even the hoariest of genre tropes feel relatively fresh. Shadowplay picked up the pace quite a bit, evened out the quality among the numerous storylines, and improved the readability of several of the more annoying or weak characters from Shadowmarch. And Shadowrise continues in that same strong vein.
Like the previous novels, Williams shifts point-of-view among several characters and plot lines, which are far too numerous and complex to go into at this stage of the series, save to say that narrative lines that seemed somewhat disconnected or even wholly separate are now starting to intertwine, in ways both expected and unexpected. The shifts themselves are fluid and easily followed, but more than in the others I felt a bit rushed through them at times and I found myself wishing Williams had let us spend some more time in each. Part of the reason for this, however, is that Williams is better here than in book one at offering up separate stories of equal narrative force.
Part of what I enjoyed so much in Shadowrise is the way he does this in varied fashion. We follow several characters preparing for small-scale battle (and a few actual skirmishes), another character’s lone (save for a talking bird) trek through a strange land, another character’s singular focus on escaping her captor, another’s first moves into the realm of political intrigue as well as romance and so on. Each strand is compelling and suspenseful, though the means of evoking that interest varies greatly.
While we’re still working with some of the same-old, same-old fantasy tropes (twins, delvers, strange forests, etc.) as with the others, Williams puts enough of his own stamp on things and creates such fully fleshed characters that the standard forms don’t detract from the reading experience. And they are more than offset by the segments in the twilight land where he lets his imagination run free.
I said in my review of book one that this series doesn’t match the genius of his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy (it was, after all, “genius”) but is his strongest work since then and compares favorably to nearly any epic fantasy going now (with only a few exceptions). Through three books, I see no reason to change my mind. I’m looking forward eagerly to the book four, the concluding volume. Or, you know, not.
Here is Robert’s review of both Shadowrise and Shadowheart:
CLASSIFICATION: Tad Williams’ Southmarch series is traditional epic fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordan and 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: Shadowrise is 564 pages long divided over a Prelude, three Parts, and thirty-nine numbered/titled chapters, with each chapter prefaced by a short excerpt from “A Treatise on the Fairy Peoples of Eion and Xand”. Also includes three maps, an Appendix, and synopses of the two previous Southmarch 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, etc. Shadowrise is the third volume in the Southmarch series after Shadowmarch and Shadowplay. March 2, 2010 marks the North American hardcover publication of Shadowrise via DAW. The trade paperback version was published on November 2, 2010. Cover art provided by Todd Lockwood.
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 in Shadowheart…
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.