Oh, Tad . . . what a tangled, deceptive, infuriating web you weave! It seems as if the Shadowmarch series has been going on forever, and it seems that I've been reading Shadowrise (the first half of the concluding volume) for even longer than that. With it's deliberate pacing, slow unveiling of the deeper mysteries, and fitful advances of the plot, this is hardly what one would describe as an all-consuming read . . . and yet, no matter how many times I put it down, it was never long before I found myself itching to take it up again.
Although a far more languid read than the first two volumes, this is also the first instalment where we really begin to get a sense of what is going on in the realm of Southmarch and beyond. All the various tangled threads begin to come together here, hinting at deeper meanings, yet never really coming right out and declaring the story's intentions. King Olin's story develops nicely, alongside that of the insane Autarch Sulepis, but it takes so long that, by the time it comes, the Autarch's grand revelation of his plans for the King is largely anticlimactic.
On the other side of the world, Vansen and Chert finally get a chance to show what they are made of, putting them squarely at the centre of the only real action within the novel. We also begin to see glimpses of who Flint really is, and what his role in the story is to be, but he's still a character-in-waiting. More disappointing is the way in which Chaven is wasted, relegated to a supporting role as the crazy old man.
As for Briony, the young woman who dominated much of the first two books is largely left to fill space here. She gets entangled in court politics, a long-distance love triangle, and even some mystical affairs, but she really does nothing to advance herself or the story. It's almost as if Tad felt the need to insert some courtly scenes into what had largely become a story of forests and tunnels, and chose to draw out her return home just long enough to win her few enemies and a few friends. Meanwhile, Qinnitan is provided with some early growth and exposure, hinting at some deeper ties to the royal twins, and even gets the chance to seize her own fate and dictate the final chapter of her story, but her significance has been held back for far too long to make her a truly effective character.
Having said all that, this is the book where Barrick gets to shine, and it's his presence that makes this a must-read. He grows, evolves, and develops more over the course of this one book than most heroes do in an entire saga. I dreaded his scenes in the first two books, and often found myself skimming over his "pity poor me" ranting. Had I been Gyir, or even Vansen, I would have sacrificed him long ago. Fortunately, being left on his own (accompanied only by a crazed bird) frees the young prince to stop playing against others' expectations and start being himself. He has some powerful scenes in this book, so much so that I actually found myself caring for his safety, and ultimately cheering his heroic maturing.
As it always the case with Tad's books, the writing here is stellar, with the dreamlike scenes beyond the shadowline more powerful than anything I've read in recent years. The dialogue is crisp and clever, and the theology/mythology is wonderfully detailed. Even the minor characters stand out on their own, instantly recognizable no matter how little page time they receive.
Part of me wants to rail against Tad for choosing to split this final volume into two parts (with Shadowheart concluding things), unnecessarily drawing out the story, and dragging us through a novel that's as much set-up for the end as it is movement towards that end. The other part of me, however, is perversely thankful for the prolonged climax and the chance to spend a little more time in his world. Don't get me wrong, this is no Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, but it is Tad Williams, and that means it's epic fantasy of a higher calibre. Had this been any other author, I likely would spend more time singing it's praises, but Tad has created such expectations that I (perhaps unfairly) feel the need to nitpick.