Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book review: "Shadowheart" by Tad Williams

I first planned to do the re-read of complete "Shadowmarch" series by Tad Williams, but when I got the last book, I didn't have the will to do it. First two parts didn't leave me the best after-taste - they weren't bad but neither was really good. Third part improved things quite a bit, but nevertheless I didn't felt like reading two thousand pages of not-so-great fantasy immediately after reading two great pieces ("The Judging Eye" and "Scar Night"). But this last book in series almost (but not quite) made me regret my decision.

Since I will reveal some major spoiler for previous books, I will advise you not to read more if you haven't read them.

In my post about "Shadowrise", I elaborated about some similarities between Williams' "Shadowmarch" and "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" series. Although they had very similar starting point, their curses ended very much different.

As in first three books, in "Shadowheart" we have several differentiated POVs, but while before one POV equaled to one chapter, things are bit different here. Since the events converge in series' namesake - Shadowmarch castle - main characters' story-lines get pretty mixed up. In last book Prince Barrick carried the last hope of Qar (Elves) to their main seat - castle Qul-na-Qar - and in the end he was able to deliver it. But things have changed much for him - now HE is the last of of Qar. After receiving the gift of Fireflower from the Blind King Ynirr and learning the real truth behind his blood, he is left with two burdens: to learn how to live with the overwhelming voices of Fireflower and to make peace with his new People, the Qar. Both of this will become even harder after he is forced by current events to go to Shadowmarch with Queen Sarqi.

Much more to the South, Princess Briony, Barrick's sister, is also going to Shadowmarch. She is doing this in company of Sianese Prince Eneas and his small but substantial army called Temple Dogs. Briony, as poor Princess without much power, must try to compel Eneas and his fillings toward helping her country's needs, but without promising much. Somewhere parallel to her, young Quintan, after escaping Vo, now wanders the unknown countryside, trying not to end in hand of Autarch.

In Shadowmarch itself, things are bad. In the castle under siege, Hendon Tolly is using the poet Matt Tinwright for some unknown, but certainly magical and dark purpose. Around it, Autarch and his humongous army are at the same time besieging the castle, fighting Qar and Funderlings, and preparing for some Sulepis' mad plan that includes magic mirrors, gods and blood of King Olin. And under it, Funderlings have made a shaky peace and alliance with the Qar, and now are preparing to stop the Autarch together, although in poor conditions for this.

What is Autarch really planing to do here? What Gods are doing about it? And what is Flint's part in these events? All this and more will be answered in this book!

The biggest problem of this book and the whole series is commonness of its characters. In cases when Williams comes up with some original idea (e.g. Fireflower and its effects, of Jiyukin in second book), they really flourish then and are interesting to read. For example, Princess Briony: she is a decent enough character, clever and troubled, with some depth. But all in all, she is a typical spoiled-princess-growing-up character and she acts like that. Prince Barrick is complete opposite - he starts as a stereotype, but once he gets in Williams original setting (Shadowlands, Qar, magic), he becomes interesting to read - especially in this book. Now that I think about it, "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" also had this problem, although it was less pronounced.

Story, on the other hand, is much more interesting. Although there are lots of clues what in general is happening, Williams successfully masks the specifics until the very end. I must say I was surprised and delighted with the last plot-twist - although the big-bad was a little downplayed and final resolution was hinted several times from the beginning of the book.

I must commend the ending. Usually, ending consist of 5-10 pages where, after defeating the enemy, heroes have a little celebration, explain few things and go home. Williams invested some effort and really explained what happened, who ended where and gave the characters a deserved conclusion. This was so unexpected that I was expecting another twist or hidden master-mind, even though they defeated the obvious one.

What I didn't like was the "mysterious cloaked stranger". After building some much hype around him, I was pretty disappointed when his identity was finally revealed. I understand that Williams wanted to play a joke on us, but it pretty much failed.

All things considered, "Shadowheart" is quite good book, with some flaws, but ultimately interesting and fun read - best from these four books. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for complete series. "Shadowmarch" tetralogy is not Williams best work, nor is so unique and good is this thickly-populated genre. Not bad, but I would have better spend my time and money on some better piece. For those who really, really liked "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" or really don't have anything else to read.

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