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A Shadow-Feast: ‘Shadowrise’ by Tad Williams

March 12, 2010

It’s an old habit of mine to compare books to food. I’ve got Pizza Books, Apple Books and Chocolate Books. Fishfingers, pancakes, candy, chicken soup and expensive restaurants.

And every once in a while, there is Feast Book, with course upon course, with every dish you could wish for. Adventure and mystery, tragedy and romance, and for dessert, a sprinkle of comedy. Seasoned with well-rounded characters, well-thought-out maps cultures and a bit of magic, you’ve got a book I’ll drool over for weeks. (To be fair, I’m sure there are just as delicious books without magic, but since most of what I read is Fantasy, I wouldn’t know them.)

‘Shadowrise’ by Tad Williams is such a Feast Book, just like all his other books. Which means it had to be read with a certain amount of ceremony.

That ceremony began about a week before I even got the book, with re-reading the first two parts in the series*, ‘Shadowmarch’ and ‘Shadowplay’. Re-reads are like leftovers, which can be consumed anywhere and under any circumstances, so I read those two in bits and pieces – a few sentences while my best friend (who spent two afternoons at our place) was out of the room, in the icy wind at the train station, during lunch break at work with a sandwich in one hand, on the train home with dirt still on my fingers…

But none of these things, none of these distractions and uncomfortable surroundings, are allowed when reading a Feast Book for the first time. So when I had completed the re-reads, had all the characters and all the questions fresh in my mind again, I got myself some hot chocolate, wrapped myself in a shawl and curled up in our old armchair – stained and cat-scratched, but still oh-so-comfortable.

I spent an entire day reading, something I probably haven’t done in years. I utterly ignored my family, even though they were going about their business all around me, eating and arguing and watching TV, losing myself in the book as completely as I haven’t done since I was a kid (when, I’m told, I utterly ignored visiting friends when I wanted to read). Even my poor, thirsty plants were forgotten.

And oh, what a book it was! Tad usually has a large cast – I could name a couple dozens characters in just a few minutes – but I can count the ones I trust not to hide anything on one hand. And that is counting the ones that are honest only with the reader, but still keep secrets from other characters.

So many riddles, so many intrigues! If it’s so difficult to keep everything in mind when just reading it, then how difficult must it have been to write it? And how difficult must it be to bring it all together in the last book? Seems to me as tricky as juggling not just half a dozen balls of different sizes, but also a couple of knives and burning torches.

And while juggling all those characters, Tad manages to get those other tricky things  about Fantasy right:

  • the maps and the names: what bothers me in several books I’ve read is that the names of both people and places are partly English, partly made-up, and even the made-up ones don’t sound as if they come from the same language. Not in ‘Shadowrise’, though – all the English-sounding names are to be found in the same corner of the world, and the made-up ones match, too. There are a couple of other things that make me smile about the maps – seeing the countries Connord and Devonis (named for his children), and the town Hierosol, which still makes me wonder: is it an intentional reference to Hierosolyma (the Latin name for Jerusalem, even if one of my classmates, way back when I still had Latin lessons, thought it meant Hiroshima), or an awfully big coincidence?
  • “Elves and Dwarves”: Some writers seem to think they have to have them because Tolkien had them. ‘Shadowrise’ has fairies, it has the Funderlings and the Skimmers who are easily recognized as dwarves and merpeople, and the tiny little Rooftoppers. But none of them are there just for the heck of it – each of the peoples has a part to play in the plot, and like each of the human peoples, they’ve got their own customs, religion, language…
  • the villain: Or rather, the lack of an outright villain, if a villain is to be defined as evil. No-one in this world is evil just for the heck of it – looking for revenge or power-crazy and immortality-seeking, yes, but not outright evil.
  • the magic: Magic is like salt – not enough of it and the book tastes bland, too much of it and it becomes utterly unreadable. Tad kinda avoids the whole issue by not using any of the “traditional” spell-saying, wand-waving magic, and using what remains sparingly.

So, all around a wonderful book. I think Tad’s earlier books had more jokes in them, and I miss that a bit, but still a wonderful book. If I didn’t love spring so much, I’d be all for jumping straight to November, and the release of ‘Shadowheart’.

And in the meantime, I have to go on a reading diet. After gorging myself with this delicious book (reading most of it in one day, which is far quicker than I expected), I just can’t bring myself to read anything else even vaguely similar, so no Fantasy for a while. I guess it’ll be non-fiction and re-reads of childhood favourites for a couple of weeks.


*which was supposed to be a trilogy, but the last part got too long and had to be split into two.


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