The Shadow Roads: Decent but anticlimactic close to trilogy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Shadow Roads by Sean Russell

The Shadow Roads brings The Swans’ War to a somewhat satisfying close, but its many weaknesses lessen the impact it might have had. The strength is the backstory — the sense of myth surrounding the three children of Wyrr, Death walled away into his own world, stories of loss and transformation. When Sean Russell spends time in this area, whether in detail or just tangentially, it lends a sad sense of grandeur and depth to the work as a whole. Unfortunately, this strength is negated by too many weaknesses.

One is that the characters become more pallid as we come to the end of the story, rather than more intense as should be the case after having spent three books’ worth of time with them. The Shadow Roads follows the by-now-familiar multi-stranded structure of most fantasy, with frequent shifts of perspective and setting. But none of them really catch fire. There are so many characters that the individual impact of any one is diluted, and we are all too often too quickly whisked away from one to the other. It isn’t that the story is too complex (except one area to be discussed), but that it’s too thinly spread. We simply don’t spend enough time with any of them to care much about them. And some characters are simply dragged along with little to say or do, so that one wonders why the editor didn’t tell Russell to either kill them off or send them home with a message.

The plot is mostly two-fold: the quest to beat Hafydd to a place where he can set in motion the release of Death and the quest to resolve the ongoing and more mundane war between the Renne’s and the Wills. The first story is pretty straightforward though it suffers from a somewhat plodding pace (too much time describing river travel that is too similar to previously described river travel), some superfluous characters and plot-lines that are mostly just dropped in and forgotten (perhaps setting up future works?), and an abrupt close with a deus ex machina resolution that is very anti-climatic. The second story, dealing with the more mundane war, suffers from complexity for complexity’s sake, where too many people with the same last names have double-crossed or pretended to double-cross too many other people with the same last names who also double-crossed… and so on. It’s unnecessarily complex and simply slows the pace and lessens the impact. And here again, the ending is a bit too pat.

All the way through this series, it felt as if it had greater potential than it was actually achieving, with strong prose and at times strong character/myth creation lifting it up out of the sense of average fantasy one often had while reading it, just in time to keep the reader going. The Shadow Roads keeps the strong descriptive prose (too much so at times) and the myth-sense is as strong as ever or even stronger, but it can’t save the book from its other flaws. It isn’t a bad book, but one certainly feels it could have been much better. Something I’d say about the series as a whole.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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