Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

Shadowmarch book cover
Rating 8.7/10
An intriguing multi-threaded story with excellent characterisation.

This is the first of 4 books in the Shadowmarch Trilogy (The 3rd book was split into 2). Like all Tad Williams books, this is multi-thread as well as character. In this world, the northern continent seems almost medieval in context, whilst the southern continent, is more like the Persian Empire. With both stories there are similarities such as the different pantheons of gods. There are also the Qar who are known as the Twilight People who once lived in the whole of the northern continent who now live beyond the Shadowline.

We are led on a journey through certain characters perspectives such as Briony and Barrick of the March Kingdoms and Qinnitan from the land of Xand. At this time, these two different strands from the North and South do not seem to have much to connect them, although when you switch between the characters and different stories you do not lose out and it broadens our horizons knowing what is happening elsewhere. We are also shown the lives of the Funderlings (who are slightly what we would think of as Dwarves) as they deal with stonework and have mysteries of their own. All 3 main characters are struggling to work out their place in the world and how to stay alive.

In this book, we are drawn into a world of human intrigue, where it would be wrong to trust anyone, in this struggle to survive. This is before the Twilight Folk get involved in the story, in this strand of the story; these characters are crossing the Shadowline, which is like a fog that if men cross into it they become lost and confused. The Qar are coming to wage war on humanity and to reclaim what was once theirs, but there seems to be a deeper motive to this as well.

I am looking forward to seeing how this series ends and where all the characters will be at that time. As well as seeing how much the characters have grown and changed as they have already done so in this first volume.
Michelle Herbert

For a long time the Tad Williams books in the Shadowmarch quadrology have sat on my girlfriend’s bookshelf earning my scorn distaste. I have no idea why. I mustn’t have ever actually read the blurbs on the back of the books, for I would have surely been as intrigued as I was when I read it last week. Somehow, in my head, I’d just assumed that I had read the blurb and decided it didn’t look any good.

Thankfully, I was not only wrong, but I gave the book a second (though actually a first) chance.

The first book in a series is always an interestingness: Is it representative of the entire series? Does it get better as time goes by? Do the characters that make it interesting die?

Naturally it’s hard to tell, and unless you wait until you’ve read the whole series you can’t really tell, and I think in doing that you lose something of understanding the books as single entities.

Shadowmarch was good, really good, as far as I can tell, but in the end I wish that Tad Williams knew how to tell a story with a little bit more alacrity. I can deal with writers who are verbose, have a story which is bottle short of a dozen, and whose characters are a little two dimensional: these books won’t rate well, but I’ll live.

What irks is when a book is slow, and Shadowmarch is definitely slow.

However it’s surprisingly slow, because there are times when you utterly lose yourself in the storytelling gift that Williams has and it isn’t a problem. I found that, by the end of the book, I felt a little winded, as if I’d had to put more work in than I would have liked, but it was still worth the effort.

Books should be worth a little effort, in the end, just maybe not this much effort.

All of that being said, however, does not take away from the very interesting story that Williams is telling. Only after you spend a little time reading do you realise that this book is populated with elves, humans, dwarves and gnomes, and that there is as much court intrigue as Robin Hobb might throw at you. The captains are three dimensional, passionate and interesting, even though they seem to harp on their deficiencies and inadequacies a lot more than is necessary.

Williams manages to write teenagers who are flung into the role of responsible monarch in a way that makes it believable. Some authors simply cannot manage this, and you spend the entire book wondering why the author is trying to make you believe a child could do an adult’s job. But the truth is, children used to fill the role of adults hundreds of years ago, and Williams manages to capture this perfectly; maybe too perfectly, as the childish tendencies of the children grate on you as you read.

There is a lot going on under the seam, so to speak, that will hopefully be revealed as the story continues in the second book. With the end of Shadowmarch one of our main characters has been ensorcelled and the other has fallen into the “escape the kingdom with the only trustworthy man in the keep” trope that, well, needs to be written well to prove a necessary inclusion into the story. I am excited for the second book, Shadowplay, but only because I read a better book in between.

When all is said and done though, Shadowmarch is something I would recommend to anyone looking for a good lengthy piece of fantasy fiction, and is willing to give up a month or two to read through all four books.
Joshua S Hill

This Shadowmarch book review was written by and Joshua S Hill

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