“One of the figures, in a long coat, leaned around from the back edge and held up a disk as if about to hand it to her. It looked like a shell strung on a necklace that, instead of circling his throat, plugged into his ears. What could that possibly be? And what legend could it be from?
The next figure above him didn’t help her, either. Painted black, with spiked blue hair, sharp-tipped ears and red eyes like flames, the figure’s identity eluded her, too.”
In the first chapter of Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, a god animates a statue to talk to Leodora. Leodora is a wanderer, a storyteller, a collector of stories and a shadow-puppeteer who performs in male guise as she journeys along the various spans of Shadowbridge. The world of Shadowbridge itself is the greatest creation in this book.
The bridge is the world, basically, a series of spirals and spans, each with its own collection of cultures, subcultures, mythology and magic. Leodora, her mentor Soter and the musician Diverus are outcasts, for various reasons, from their own spans. Shadowbridge has strange customs, gods who play an active role in people’s lives, and many different stories about how their world was created. The story of how Leodora and Diverus fit into their world is mostly a mystery. Leodora is the daughter of Bardsham, the most famous shadow-puppeteer, and in Soter’s opinion, Leodora surpasses him. Leodora can see to the heart of a story, changing it to make it live and breathe for the audience who watches it. The god, though, warns her that she is “rattling the darkness,” and this is not a good thing.
Frost shares the stories Leodora collects, and also tells us about her childhood. Leodora has ridden a sea-dragon, stolen the mysterious “coral man” figure, and been cast out of her village for being a witch. She inadvertently rescues Diverus from a brothel where the clients partake of vivid dreams created by afrit, who feed upon the energy of beautiful boys.
Shadowbridge features a wonderfully described world. Frost has a gift for the unique but apt metaphor, such as, “Melancholy joined her then, a late-rising twin,” or this passage, where young Leodora and her beaten-down aunt eat dinner while they await the return of her uncle:
… While Leodora wondered about Soter’s ghosts, so her aunt appeared preoccupied with where her uncle might be. Their unease they shared as if it were a condiment, but neither would speak of it.
Magic blows across the spans of Shadowbridge like moist ocean breezes. There are afrits, sea dragons and a parade of monsters that travels to the end of time — a parade that sweeps up Leodora and Diverus. There is magic in each span and in the dragon bowls that line the bridge itself.
I liked this part of the book very much. I enjoyed the mystery of Leodora’s parents, and her destiny; and I loved the stories she sought out. I didn’t care as much for the characters. There is little warmth or caring demonstrated by the principals, and secondary characters are one-note: the Downtrodden Woman, the Vicious Uncle, the Hidebound Villagers, the Jaded Pimp (which, as I write it, looks like it should be the name of a shady pub in another epic fantasy somewhere). It isn’t that characters aren’t interesting and much as it is the degree of distance they have from the reader. The hard-drinking Soter escapes being a stereotype only because of the importance of the secrets he is holding, which are gradually being revealed as the book ends — on a cliffhanger.
The story of Leodora, Diverus and Soter is completed in the sequel, Lord Tophet. I hope these characters will open up more and become more engaging, but even if they don’t, I will still read it, just to be carried into the world created by Frost’s shimmering, precise prose.