Tad Williams brought Shadowmarch to a close which promised a lot of things to come for its sequel, Shadowplay. Two years later, I was eager to discover if the second installment would live up to those expectations. Unfortunately, my review copy was lost in the mail, so I couldn't read it before the release date. I was a little taken aback by the negativity surrounding some early reviews of Shadowplay. As always, good or bad, I wanted to find out for myself.
One of the book's shortcomings was supposedly the fact that nothing happens. I found that hard to believe, especially the way Williams brought Shadowmarch to an end. Having read the novel, I can now set the record straight. While it's untrue that nothing happens, it is undeniable that nothing major occurs. Much to my surprise, it felt as though both Shadowmarch and Shadowplay act as a two-part introduction to the main story arcs, and that all the good stuff has been reserved for the final chapter of the trilogy, Shadowrise. I am aware that it's not necessarily easy to break down the various volumes of a series in such a fashion that each book can sort of stand on its own, with a beginning and an ending that provides a measure of closure. Authors like Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin could certainly attest to the difficulty of doing just that. I'm well aware that storylines must follow their course, yet the second volume in a trilogy is supposed to be the novel in which the author kick-starts the tale and brings it to another level. Such is not the case with Shadowplay.
Typical of any Tad Williams novel/series, the worldbuilding is a notch or two above what is currently the norm among his peers. Vast in scope and in details, Shadowplay continues to expand the concepts which were introduced in Shadowmarch. I particularly enjoyed the depth with which the author elaborated on the variety of gods and the part they played in the past and the role they will indubitably play in the next installment.
Williams is a notorious slow starter. And yet, with the way Shadowmarch ended I was convinced that things would be different this time around. Which, in the end, is probably my biggest disappointment pertaining to Shadowplay. The pace throughout is somewhat sluggish, with things really picking up at the very end. As I mentioned, the author sets the stage for a terrific final volume, but it is to the detriment of Shadowplay.
As was the case with its predecessor, the characterizations found within the pages of this novel are at times brilliant and at times lacking. In the past, both in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and later in Otherland, Tad Williams introduced us to wonderful casts of characters which included Simon, Binabik, Aditu, Renie, Orlando, !Xabbu, Mister Sellars, etc. I'm not trying to say that there are no interesting characters in this new series -- far from it. Yassamez, Chaven, Gil, the Autarch, and a bunch of others immediately come to mind. The main problem is that the bulk of the tale is told through the eyes of both Barrick and Briony. Using young adolescents as your principal POV characters can be quite a challenge. Let's be honest here: It's not the period of our life during which we are the most likeable. Add to that the fact that the twins are royalty, and you have two annoying and whiny brats on your hands. Hence, when you structure the narrative in such a way that those two characters must move the tale forward, it makes it extremely difficult for readers to maintain interest if they don't care much for those characters. Just ask Robin Hobb, who's been having the same problem with her first person narrative of the stiff-necked Nevare. . .
Having said that, Tad Williams nevertheless deserves some credit for creating one of my most despised characters ever, namely Briony!;-) GRRM's Sansa Stark takes the cake, but Briony Eddon is not far behind. Although certain plotlines fascinated me -- Chaven and the mirror-lore, for example -- I found myself gritting my teeth every time I realized that I was starting yet another Briony chapter. Though the circumstances surrounding their characters are similar, she is no Arya Stark.
Barrick's storyline, on the other hand, becomes much more interesting now that he is beyond the Shadowline. His character doesn't become any more likeable, however. Still, with a good part of the events told through Vansen's POV, I found that it did help matters a lot. I have to admit that I was expecting more from that storyline, yet it's obvious that what occurs beyond the Shadowline will play a major role in Shadowrise.
One of the most intriguing characters in Shadowmarch, at least where I'm concerned, was Qinnitan. I was looking forward to learning a lot more about her in Shadowplay. She fled the Autarch of Xis and now hides in Hierosol. Sadly, Qinnitan's role in this second volume is rather small. The portions in which she appears feel like brief interludes. Williams shows us a few glimpses of her apparent importance in the greater scheme of things, glimpses that make you wish to discover a whole lot more. But again, those revelations are postponed till Shadowrise is released.
The author does end the novel with a bang, as is his wont. But it's an ending that offers no resolution whatsoever. Indeed, Williams brings this one to a close with an ensemble of cliffhangers, which will probably displease some readers.
Uncharacteristic of the second volume in a trilogy, Shadowplay acts as a set-up for the final installment. As such, it is little more than a transition book, which is quite unusual for a writer like Tad Williams. As I mentioned, all the good stuff will take place in Shadowrise. It appears evident that with all those different plotlines coming together in the third and final volume, Shadowrise will be an incredible read and I can't wait to get my hands on that book! Sadly, because of its structure, Shadowplay will not be seen as such. . . On its own, it will likely be regarded as the weakest volume in the series.