River of Blue Fire: A great story that’s just too long

River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRiver of Blue Fire by Tad Williams science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRiver of Blue Fire by Tad Williams

River of Blue Fire (1998) is the second book in Tad WilliamsOVERLAND quartet. You absolutely must read the first book, City of Golden Shadow, first.

Our group of heroes (Renie, Xabbu, Orlando, Fredericks, Martine, Tb4, Kwan-Le) have entered Otherland and are searching for Paul Jonas at Mr. Sellar’s request. They hope to discover what the Grail Brotherhood is up to and why some kids (including Renie’s little brother Stephen, and online pals Orlando and Fredericks) are in comas. What is the Grail Brotherhood’s plans for these kids?

But soon the heroes are accidentally separated into two groups and they are struggling just to stay alive as they travel through different domains in Otherland, including one that has giant insects (created by an entomologist), one that is a two-dimensional cartoon in a kitchen setting where the vegetables are at war, and one that is a deranged version of The Wizard of Oz.

What our heroes don’t know is that one of their companions (and we don’t yet know which one) is actually the sim of Dread, the serial killer. As they travel together, they start to gradually understand Otherland and each other. For example, we hear Martine’s story about how her parents sold her to researchers doing a sensory deprivation experiment (this turns out to be important later). Not all of our heroes will survive.

Meanwhile, Paul Jonas is hanging out with Neanderthals who speak English but aren’t quite dubbed correctly, so he knows he’s in a simulation. When he walks into the War of the Worlds set and then The Odyssey, he recognizes them as sims, too. He’s starting to recall a bit about who he was in RL (Real Life) and he’s still seeing visions of a young woman who is beckoning him to find her in Otherland.Otherland (4 Book Series) by Tad Williams

Meanwhile, back in RL, Orlando’s body is dying and his parents begin to realize that something strange is going on. They hire Ramsey, a lawyer who connects them with Fredericks’ parents. Ramsey also discovers Olga, a woman who plays Uncle Jingle in the online children’s program. Olga has recently become suspicious about the children in comas. Then there’s the cop who is still trying to solve the murder of one of Dread’s recent victims. And Christabel is still sneaking around and obeying the orders of Mr. Sellars, but then she gets caught.

In my review of City of Golden Shadow, I mentioned that my one complaint was how long and slow the story was. This problem is greatly magnified in River of Blue Fire. The story itself is fascinating and complex — it’s wonderfully inventive science fiction. But this installment gets bogged down with too much travelling and too many scenes that are not crucial to the overall plot. It’s a long surreal journey through a multitude of bizarre worlds with only occasional tidbits of important information doled out. It’s a lot like the mid to late books in Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME or Taylor Anderson’s DESTROYERMEN (but better written than both of those series).

Readers who love to enjoy the journey and want it to last as long as possible will probably be fine with this. Unfortunately, I am not so patient. But I really like the concept here, I’m invested in these characters, and I’m desperate to know how it will end, so I will eagerly read the next volume (Mountain of Black Glass) and hope it gets somewhere faster than River of Blue Fire did.

Again, Penguin Audio’s version is excellent. George Newbern, the narrator, is fabulous. I will excuse him for mispronouncing forecastle — those nautical terms that don’t sound like they look are so weird! The audiobook for River of Blue Fire is 24 hours long.

Published in 1998. Otherland. In many ways it is humankind’s most stunning achievement: a private, multidimensional universe built over two generations by the greatest minds of the twenty-first century. But this most exclusive of places is also one of the world’s best kept secrets, created and controlled by an organization made up of the world’s most powerful and ruthless individuals, a private cartel known–to those who know of their existence at all–as The Grail Brotherhood. Though their purpose in creating Otherland is still a mystery, it may not remain so for long. For they have exacted a terrible price from humanity in the process, and even their highly organized global conspiracy cannot hide the nature of their crimes forever. And now a small band of adventurers has penetrated the veil of secrecy that prevents the uninitiated from entering Otherland. But having broken into the amazing worlds within worlds that make up this universe, they are trapped, unable to escape back to their own flesh-and-blood bodies in the real world. And as dangers and circumstances split their party into small, widely scattered groups, their only hope of reuniting lies in returning again and again to the River that flows–in one form or another–through all the worlds. But the odds seem to be completely against them as they–and the one outsider with whom they might join forces–become hopelessly lost in realms where an Ice Age tribe’s fears can only be quenched in blood…where insects are as large and deadly as dinosaurs…where they are caught in the war between a man made of straw and one made of tin…where cartoon ads take on a life of their own…where humans strive to survive in the aftermath of an alien invasion…and where one among their party is actually The Grail Brotherhood’s most terrifying weapon–a sociopathic killer who has never failed and whose current mission is to make certain that not even one member of this little invasion force lives long enough to reveal the truth about Otherland to the people of Earth.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. I have to say, a cartoon kitchen where the vegetables are at war grabbed my attention!

  2. Paul Connelly /

    With something like Zelazny’s first Amber series, you picked up pretty quickly on Corwin’s hallucinatory “hellrides” being Roger just throwing any weird, exotic or humorous content that struck his fancy at you, the reader. Almost none of it having anything to do with the plot, but that was cool.

    It’s a little harder to tell with Otherland, and the length of the volumes makes Zelazny’s 5 book series look positively terse by comparison. Still, I loved it when I first read it. Now I can’t remember a thing about it though, while I can still remember…maybe not most…but a lot…about Amber.

    • That’s an interesting comparison, Paul. I’ve read Amber twice and the second time I read it I was really surprised at how little I remembered.

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