DAW books, Penguin Group; 2004
Hardcover, 672 pages
Shadowmarch Series #1
Synopsis from Publisher:
For Generations the misty Shadowline has marked the boundary between the lands of men and the lost northern lands that are the lair of their inhuman enemies, the ageless Qar. But now, after centuries of stability, that boundary line is moving outward, threatening to engulf the northernmost land in which humans still live—the kingdom of Southmarch. A magical darkness is growing—reaching foggy tendrils from beyond the Shadowline, and those unfortunate men caught in the sorcerous mists of the Qar either never return, or are forever changed.
For centuries, the Eddon family has ruled in ancient forbidding Southmarch Castle, guarding the border against the Qar's return, but now this powerful royal line has been dealt a devastating blow. The monarch and head of the family, King Olin, is being held captive in a distant land, and it falls to his inexperienced heirs to lead their people in a time of growing danger and dread.
It is on the youngest Eddons, the twins Barrick and Briony, that the heaviest burdens fall. Crippled Barrick, haunted and sickly for most of his life, and tormented by inexplicable nightmares, must cling to his love of his family and especially of his sister, which may be all that can save him from madness or worse. Briony in turn can only watch helplessly while her brother grows more and more strange, even as she fights with strength she did not know she had to hold onto her family's heritage in the face of secrets and perils that no living mortal could have imagined.
Tad Williams' Shadowmarch includes several maps at the opening and, after some history to set kingdoms, peoples, and events in place, opens in Southmarch, a kingdom that borders the Shadowline, a foggy barrier that separates the land of men and fairies. The king is being held hostage, there is intrigue in the kingdom, threats come from several fronts, and the Shadowline is moving. Adding to the turmoil, the kingdom ends up being run by two teenage twins, Briony and Barrick - but this is just one of the story lines Williams establishes in Shadowmarch.
There are several different narrative threads in Shadowmarch, so the cast of characters is quite large. If you lose track of some detail and need help, help is available. Included at the back of the book is an appendix of people, places, things and animals. Knowing how the many different plots and subplots merged together at the end of Otherland, I'm feeling quite hopeful for the potential in the rest of the Shadowmarch series.
The various aspects of the novel, with all the different subplots and characters, do get off to a slow start. Part of this is simply due to the time it takes to develop with any complexity all the different characters and their stories. And Williams does an excellent job establishing characters and settings. For me the twins were becoming a bit tiresome until the end when things picked up considerably. I'm now hopeful that the twins will experience some personal growth and my annoyance will lessen. All the other story lines and characters are very intriguing, and I'm anxious to see what happens next.
Shadowmarch is the first of four books in Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series. I'm the first to admit that I generally don't often read fantasy so I can't compare Shadowmarch to other novels in the fantasy genre. Any judgments I make are going to be in comparison to Tad Williams Otherland series. Additionally, after the Otherland series, I knew that there would not be a conclusion to this first book in the series because Williams' series are literally one very long book. I must also add that I continue to find Williams very readable, so the sheer number of pages and a slow start didn't intimidate me.
Oh, and I must find a way to designate in some form or manner that someone is one of "those who are First to the Cheese" with nostrils "of true breeding" (see last quote). I was reading this in the car while waiting to pick up someone and about died laughing. I know a couple young men who could easily wear this title.
For almost a thousand years before our Trigonate Era, history was written only in the ancient kingdom of Xand, the southern continent that was the world's first seat of civilization. opening
Since a time before history, the men of Eion have shared their lands with the strange, pagan Qar, who were known variously as the Twilight People, the Quiet People, or most often "the fairy folk." pg. 2
When the March Kingdoms and their allies at last defeated the invaders in 1107 and tried to pursue the Qar back into their own lands to eliminate the threat once and for all, the retreating fairy folk created a barrier that, although it did not keep men out, confused and bewitched all who passed it. After several companies of armed men disappeared, with only a few maddened survivors returning, the mortal allies gave up and declared the misty boundary they named the Shadowline to be the new border of the lands of men. pg. 4
The shadow-dwelling Qar have a saying which signifies, in rough translation: "Even the Book of Regret starts with a single word." It means that even the most important matters have a unique and simple beginning, although sometimes it cannot be described until long afterward - a first stroke, a seed, a nearly silent intake of breath before a song is sung. That is why you are hurrying now: the sequence of events that in days ahead will shake not just Southmarch but the entire world to its roots is commencing here and now, and you shall be witness. pg. 9
As the blind king said, this is a beginning. What he did not say, but which is nonetheless true, is that what begins here is the ending of the world. pg.11
I am a fortunate man, he told himself. Heaven has smiled on me, far beyond what I have earned, and I have everything I could want - or nearly so. I must accept those great riches and not ask more, not anger the gods with my greed. pg. 41
The figure on the dock extinguished the lantern and turned back toward the castle, moving carefully from shadow to shadow as though it carried something extremely precious or extremely dangerous. pg. 53
Men's wars happened far away and proved their courage in front of armies of other men. Women's wars were more subtle things and were witnessed mostly by others of their sex. Her ladies-in-waiting and all the other women in the castle were waging a battle against chaos, struggling to lend sense to a world that seemed to have lost it. pg. 171
"Our advisor says there is a wicked scent about you," the queen reported. "I smell it not, but he has always been a trusted help to our person. He is the sixth generation of those who are First to the Cheese - his nostrils are of true breeding." pg. 251