Tad Williams: Shadowheart

Tad Williams: Shadowheart

In Shadowheart, volume four of Tad William’s Shadowmarch series, Barrick and Briony arrive at Southmarch with their respective armies and take up the fight against the overpowering Autarch whose army is breaking down the castle’s wall bit by bit. Inside, Matti Tinwright is caught spying and forced into Hendon Tolly’s gruesome employ. Unbeknownst to the castle’s inhabitants, Captain Vansen and his Funderling comrades fight in a valiant effort to slow down the Xandians; they can not be allowed to reach the Mysteries before Midsummer. With the end near, both Rooftoppers and Skimmers—until now mainly passive observers of events—join the fray alongside their Qar relatives. Midsummer is drawing near.

Shadowheart is one long, bloated battle that diminishes the actual climax. The final reveals are unsatisfying because they seem unimportant or have been obvious since two books before. Even after the finale itself, Williams goes on with some rather embarrassing explanations which try to make things plausible in hindsight.

The Shadowmarch series as a whole is rather atypical. It has a weak start, strong middle and a weak, outdrawn ending. Williams is a good writer in terms of local suspension; there are great scenes with psychological dramas between Olin and Sulepis, Yasammez is a frightening presence whenever she enters stage, the small Rooftoppers are a delight, and the Funderling defense effort is just a great read. The books are decent in other aspects, too, especially because of Williams’ worldbuilding. He took the Greek pantheon and let things get terribly out of hand. Proposing three different religious views on the godly war and having their believers battle for supremacy is a fascinating idea.

I am still mightily disappointed, though. I feel that a lot of potential in terms of setup and scenes has been wasted by bad plot architecture and poor character choice. The big story arc is just no good; is there even one? For most of the time, the handful of point-of-view characters only reacts to what others do; their choices rarely matter. That gives the whole series a very passive feel. The actual drivers of events are Yasammez, the Autarch, Hendon Tolly and, although weaker, the Qars’ lords, all of which are only seen through the eyes of other characters. As a (twisted) author’s tool, this can work, I think, but not over 3000+ pages.

Regarding characters, main character Briony (and Barrick, if less so) annoyed me without end, much like Harry Potter. She just does not get it, not even after her ordeal in the middle of the series. Furthermore, what is it with Qinnitan, one of the three main point-of-view characters? What is her plot good for, really? For four books we get hints—promises!—which were not even fulfilled in the end. And even if, it would have been a poor excuse to follow here that closely for all this time. I really think her part could have been left out without any piece of the puzzle missing. Matti Tinwright is a similar case, but not as prominently. The boy Flint, though, impacts events a lot, but from him we only get glimpses!

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Another issue I have with the books is a matter of taste. Williams is so not good at killing characters when appropriate. At least he does it in Shadowmarch, but often in unsatisfying ways. For one, some more important minor characters (Shaso, Jesper, Anissa, Yasammez, and city Hierosol) are killed off-screen, that is they just vanish from the reader’s radar. How cruel! Yasammez at least gets her big fight, but the others just go away. In particular, I feel Shaso deserved to go out with a bang and we certainly were promised a big final battle for Hierosol; remember that trick with the wall they set up at the end of Shadowplay? We never get to know wether it worked!

Other deaths happen in a completely sterile way (Chaven, Vo, Sulepis). I understand killing off antagonists matter of factly as means to belittle them, and that almost worked for me. But Chaven? His whole tragedy went on too much in the background, anyway, so we could have gotten a proper ending at the least. Even the one death which is worthy and shown (Beetledown) is only confirmed indirectly. Ironically, this is one character I cared enough about to want to see him live and marry his queen, so his death worked for me.

Another big WTF moment for me was the completely unforeshadowed return of Gailon Tolly from the dead (I was sure the hooded guy was Shaso. Too bad.). That scene is deus ex machine if there ever was one. Please, Mr Williams, do not write your characters in situations you can not get them out off without cheating.

Despite all that, I had a really good time with the books; they are well-written, thrilling and all in all entertaining reads. It was only at the end I felt disappointed because nothing seemed to come together in a satisfying way. This will keep me away from Tad Williams for a while, though; there is just so much better stuff out there.

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