My next encounter was Otherland, in which my children tried to interest me, as they thoroughly enjoyed this series, but I could not get into it. It seemed too episodic and it looked like it was going to drag on forever. I could not buy into the concept of everything happening in a virtual reality. I read the first book and that was enough for me.
Back to the present. I recently read Shadowmarch and Shadowplay, the first two novels in Tad William's latest fantasy trilogy. The final novel, Shadowrise, is still in the oven. This is the Tad Williams I love, painting a rich fantasy world with characters of complex history and character.
Southmarch is a kingdom threatened by two main dangers in addition to the power struggles that threaten to destroy it from within: from the south, a spreading theocracy headed by a maniacal god-king, Sulepis Bishakh am-Xis III, a strange being who may not be completely human, but is completely evil. He is trying to take over the world and having pretty good success, since no one wants to be the next to die, and that is the price of failure.
To the north, behind the misty shadowline, which lies close to the castle of Southmarch, is the land of faerie and many bitter magical creatures who long to march south and recapture the lands taken from them by the humans centuries ago. To enter the mist, means madness for humans, and few who enter ever return. Now, it appears that the shadowline is moving south along with an army of fairy folk.
The royal twins, Briony and Barrick Eddon, brother and sister, find themselves regents of Southmarch upon the bloody murder of their older brother, who was himself filling in for their father, a prisoner in a southern kingdom. They have some irritating qualities, immaturity on her part and peevishness on his part, that make them unlikely heroes. I suspect that this intentional on the part of the author, so that we will be able to see them grow as they struggle to deal with the court intrigues and other dangers from north and south they will need to face and conquer to fulfill their destinies, whatever those may turn out to be. While the story moves steadily forward, with many a twist and turn, in the first two novels, it is not clear how their tale will end.
It is the characters who surround the twins who provided much delight for me as a reader.
Ferras Vansen, the captain of the Royal Guard, hopelessly in love with Briony, and on a possibly hopeless mission to safeguard her brother, Barrick, who seems hell-bent on getting himself killed or captured in the Shadowland.
Shaso, the master of arms, who rose to power after becoming a captive, was their father's trusted advisor, but comes under suspicion of being the murderer of the twin's brother.
Chert Blue-Quartz, a Funderling, who in the tradition of Hobbits and other small folk, is steadfast and humble, and probably a key player in resolving many of the mysteries surrounding this story.
Flint, a child mysteriously brought out of the Shadowlands and dumped back in the land of the mortals. He appears to be a child with no memory, but a mission. Chert spends much of his time watching out for and chasing after Flint, trying to determine whether he is the good child he appears to be or an agent for evil. Flint discovers and makes contact with the Rooftoppers.
Beetledown, a Rooftopper, tiny humanoid beings who dwell on the rooftops and inside the nooks and crannies of the castle. He is a scout, and can capture and ride a rat or a bat, if need be. He fears nothing and no one.
Qinnitan, a young religious acolyte, chosen to be one wife of many in the harem of the god-king, Sulepis, who finds herself desperately on the run from him. What her part is to play in this story is one of the puzzles that will not be clear until the third novel is published.
There are many other characters, including unexpected allies, such as a silly poet, a blind fairy, and a comical, but very disgusting raven. One of the amazing things that Tad Williams does, even with those characters who may only appear in one scene, is to make them seem whole, fully fleshed-out creatures. I don't know how he manages to come up with just the right anecdote to explain their sense of self, but he does it. He is full of surprises, but moves the story smoothly back and forth between three or four concurrent stories, each person not knowing what the other is doing, but all moving forward toward what I hope will be a satisfying conclusion.