Where Shadowplay really picked up the pace from Shadowmarch not only in terms of action, but in terms of originality and creativity, Shadowrise continues forward in one direction, but I feel steps backwards in the other. The story really comes into its own in this book, with all the characters starting to sound much more like full entities instead of cardboard cut-outs, and a lot of really great ideas are introduced (or expanded upon). Despite this, however, I found myself feeling restless throughout large portions of the book – other than Barrick’s various adventures beyond the Shadowline, very little in the way of action happened. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for R.A. Salvatore-style nothing-ever-stops-happening fantasy, but I felt through reading this book that I would really like to just skip passed major sections and get back to the story, which to me, seemed odd considering its placement in the series. In particular, I found Captain Vansen’s storyline to be extremely dull, and seemed almost like filler to me – which is a shame, because during the first two books, Vansen was my favorite character.
Something else I’ve noticed is that I feel that Tad Williams’ prose doesn’t have the grace it once had. I did not pick up on this through the first two books, possibly because I was enthralled by the origins of the story as well as by a lot of action, but during the slower parts of Shadowrise, this really stood out to me. When I look at series like Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and Otherland, where I have memorized passages of text because of how they stand out to me as being so beautifully-well crafted, I definitely feel that Shadowmarch is a slight step down. Some of it these feelings I attribute to my overall unrest with the book, but some I feel come from some new stylistic choices Williams had made in these books – such as becoming a bit more graphic in his speaking of sex (though nothing like Martin, who I often call the Stephen King of fantasy).
Without a doubt though, one of Tad Williams’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability in a series for the penultimate volume to finally begin putting together all the plot pieces like a puzzle – and like a puzzle, the picture becomes clear in a way that is very satisfying to the reader. This story does not disappoint in that regard – the way Barrick’s history with the Qar is slowly revealed, similarly overlapping various reveals of his father Olin, and the slave girl Qinnitan, is pure genius, and I found myself being very delighted to read the last few chapters where the reveals became more important. This made me hunger for more, which is another of Williams’ stronger authorial techniques, and one that he has not yet failed at delivering as far as I’m concerned.
Overall, I would say this book is a pretty strong B+ for the fantasy genre as a whole, but well below average for Tad Williams (who I make no excuses for being my favorite author – fantasy or otherwise).
I will not be able to start Shadowheart until next week, but from the non-spoiler reviews I’ve read, I expect it to really pick up the pace to go out with a bang.