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Shadowplay: Way to Character Development!

September 23, 2009

Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch trilogy is a guilty pleasure of mine.

The trouble with plain-vanilla high fantasy is that it’s been done so much that none of the new stuff is particularly original anymore, and Shadowmarch is no exception. You’ve got your castle, you’ve got your conniving nobles, you’ve got your twin royals sent into exile, and the army of fairies that would like to take over said castle. Add to that a good sprinkling of battle scenes, women wearing trousers (shocking!) and a black guy who comes from Very Far Away and everybody thinks he’s incredibly exotic. Heck, the book’s even got dwarves. He calls them Funderlings but I know what you’re getting at, Mr. Williams.

On top of that, it’s got a sprawling Los Angeles of a plot. If you were planning on reading Shadowmarch and Shadowplay, I hope you weren’t in too much of a hurry because Tad Williams is going to bloody well take as long as he pleases to get where he’s going. The first two books of the expected trilogy, which are really one story split into two volumes to make them possible to lift, are at 1000 pages and counting. He has … let’s see, now … at least twelve POV characters. This is the sort of book that comes supplied with an index at the end.

Conditions like this typically make me want to throw the book across the room. So why can’t I stop reading?

It’s the characters. To tell the truth, Tad Williams is a talented storyteller. About halfway through the first volume I’d had just about enough of Prince Barrick whining about some family curse and I was on the point of throwing the book across the room. But– but– what was going to happen to Chert Blue Quartz? He isn’t some high-strung noble at all, but this, er, dwarf who’s just trying to do his job as a repairman to the vaults under the city. It’s obvious his wife Opal is the light of his life, he’s worried about this human kid he’s semi-adopted, and he’d really rather not get caught up in all the castle’s machinations and probably killed. Was Chert going to be okay?

Williams has such a knack for warm, human, likable characters that you want to forgive him everything. Yes, even the saucy barmaid. And the buffoonish poet. And the princess who’s pretending to be a boy. Even though they sound like stereotypes, they come across as real people.

And did I mention that Gyir is awesome? He’s a fairy. And if you confuse him with the sugar-dust-and-tutu type of fairy it’ll probably be the last thing you do. He’s a badass sword-wielding human-sized dude, one of the Fey Folk, from out of those old folktales where people called fairies the “good people” because they were so terrified of offending them. He doesn’t have any nose or mouth, so he breathes out of slits just behind his ears.

The second volume, Shadowplay, has so much more to offer than the first. The Shadowmarch trilogy is the opposite of those trilogies that sag in the middle; now that Williams has finished introducing us to everybody, which took him 500 pages or so, interesting things are starting to happen. There is something to be said for letting things unfold organically like this. The people in this world start to feel like old friends of yours. The last scene had me pumping the air when a certain highly sympathetic Vuttlander does not get killed off by the plot yet*. The final irony is that nobody knows when the third book in the trilogy, Shadowrise, is going to be published.

Is everybody going to be okay?

* I would bet money that Captain Vansen is going to bite it. It’s like he’s walking around with a bull’s-eye taped to his armor.

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