Shadowplay by Tad Williams
As readers, we are lucky that Tad Williams backs the Golden State Warriors; for if he needed to spend more time backing a winning basketball team, he might spend less time writing engaging series like Shadowmarch (sorry, Tad).
As with his other series, Williams effortlessly mixes human politics, royalty and coming-of-age stories with magic entities, god and demigod rivalries. He doesn’t explain all (similar to his Otherland series, where some events still puzzle me) but keeps his readers wondering. Why is there an alliance between the Tollys and the Sulepis of Xis? How is Qinnitan related to Briony, Barrick and King Olin? What is the relationship between the Qar and the Eddons? Are they half-Qar and half-human? If this series is like others of Williams, some questions will be answered and others will be left to the reader…which is yet another reason to enjoy his work. It is a large investment of time to read a series this long, but Williams’ past series (Otherland, and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) have proven well worth the investment.
Shadowplay is volume two in the series of four, and it starts with the twin rulers of Southmarch, Briony and Barrick Eddon separated and struggling. Southmarch, the northern most human city, is surrounded by an army of the Qar (the fairy folk) and in the hands of the Tollys, enemies of the Eddons. Barrick had gone north to battle the Qar army, and had been had a magic encounter with Queen Yasammez of the Qar. He begins wandering the Shadowlands, followed by Ferras Vansen, captain of the royal guard, sworn to Barrick’s sister Briony that he would protect him. They encounter and begin traveling with the fairy Gyir The Storm Lantern, who has an object he received from Queen Yasammez who got it from Flint (who may or may not be the son of Duchess Mer0lanna, the twins Great Aunt) and Chert, the Funderling (small folk who are good at digging and stonework and live under the castle).
Meanwhile, Briony escapes the castle with Shaso, who was accused of killing Briony and Barrick’s older brother (actually killed by a demon, of course) but the house and people that take them in are burned out, with Shaso believed lost. Briony staggers to a woods, encounters a demigod there who hopes her to a band of actors, heading in the direction of Syan where she would like to gain aide to regain her throne.
Qinnitan had escaped Xis and Sulepis to Hierisol, pretending to be a laundry woman. King Olin Eddon, being held for ransom in Hierisol, recognizes her. But the Sulepis attacks Hierisol, and has sent a warrior, Daikonas Vo, to retrieve her.
The king of the Qar, Ynnir, is waiting for the object that Gyir is bringing, so that he can get the Queen of the Qar, Saqri, out of a death sleep. But Gyir, Barrick and Vansen are captured by the demigod Jikuyin, and are intended to be used as sacrifices to open the gates to the sleeping gods. There is an underlying theme of the old gods sleeping and the threat of them awakening and not only destroying man but the Qar as well.
The only part of the story that seemed out of place was that of Matt Tinwright the poet, who has a love worship with Elan, a lady held captive by the Tollys. The characters are not as engaging as the rest, and the scenes only go to show from an outsiders point of view how cruel the Tollys are…which may be the point. The scenes with Duchess Merolanna and the Rooftoppers, and her trying to find out why her son Flint was taken by the Qar many years ago, only to be returned now (and he was the one who found the object which may halt the war) are probably foreshadowing an old relationship between the Qar and the Eddons.
This volume ends with much in the balance. Spoilers ahead:
- Queen Yasammez might attack Southmarch, since she felt Gyir die at the hands of the demigod Jikuyin;
- Barrick escapes thanks to Gyir, and is heading to King Ynnir, in hopes of avoiding a large war by delivering the trinket he carries;
- Briony is in a dungeon in Syan, but may have talked her way out;
- King Olin has been traded to Sulepis of Xis, who is on a fast boat to Southmarch (to meet the Tollys or the Qar?);
- Qinnitan is on a boat behind them, captive of Vo;
- Farras Vansen ends up traveling through worlds back with Chert and Chaven, under the castle of Southmarch.
The next book was supposed to be the final book, but it turned out too long. The third volume is Shadowrise, with the fourth named Shadowheart.