Shadowrise is Tad Williams’ third and thus concluding novel of the Shadowmarch trilogy, begun in Shadowmarch and continued in Shadowplay. So in this final volume… wait, hold on… I’m now being told that Mr. Williams, clearly feeling a sense of fantasy author peer pressure, has decided that, yes, while this is the “concluding volume,” it has in fact been split into two (hmmm, where have I heard that before), making this trilogy, in usual fantasy fashion, four books. At least. Maybe five. Who knows?
In truth though, I’ve found the degree to which this sort of thing annoys me is in direct inverse relation to the quality of the books themselves. And I can’t say I found myself particularly upset that Williams has extended Shadowmarch another five hundred pages or so. Or, you know, another thousand.
Book one was a typical starter novel: relatively slow-paced so as to introduce character, setting, necessary background information, etc. and leaving the reader with more questions than answers. It had its issues, was a bit uneven in its treatment of character and various storylines, but I found it mostly compelling throughout and found that Williams’ characteristically sharp writing more than compensated for the few flaws and found ways to make even the hoariest of genre tropes feel relatively fresh. Shadowplay picked up the pace quite a bit, evened out the quality among the numerous storylines, and improved the readability of several of the more annoying or weak characters from Shadowmarch. And Shadowrise continues in that same strong vein.
Like the previous novels, Williams shifts point-of-view among several characters and plot lines, which are far too numerous and complex to go into at this stage of the series, save to say that narrative lines that seemed somewhat disconnected or even wholly separate are now starting to intertwine, in ways both expected and unexpected. The shifts themselves are fluid and easily followed, but more than in the others I felt a bit rushed through them at times and I found myself wishing Williams had let us spend some more time in each. Part of the reason for this, however, is that Williams is better here than in book one at offering up separate stories of equal narrative force.
Part of what I enjoyed so much in Shadowrise is the way he does this in varied fashion. We follow several characters preparing for small-scale battle (and a few actual skirmishes), another character’s lone (save for a talking bird) trek through a strange land, another character’s singular focus on escaping her captor, another’s first moves into the realm of political intrigue as well as romance and so on. Each strand is compelling and suspenseful, though the means of evoking that interest varies greatly.
While we’re still working with some of the same-old, same-old fantasy tropes (twins, delvers, strange forests, etc.) as with the others, Williams puts enough of his own stamp on things and creates such fully fleshed characters that the standard forms don’t detract from the reading experience. And they are more than offset by the segments in the twilight land where he lets his imagination run free.
I said in my review of book one that this series doesn’t match the genius of his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy (it was, after all, “genius”) but is his strongest work since then and compares favorably to nearly any epic fantasy going now (with only a few exceptions). Through three books, I see no reason to change my mind. I’m looking forward eagerly to the book four, the concluding volume. Or, you know, not.