Review of Shadowmarch

I have recently completed reading the Shadowmarch series by US author Tad Williams. This fantasy series consists of four volumes: ShadowmarchShadowplay, Shadowrise and Shadowheart.

In this series Williams tells us about the last war in a sequence of wars between humans on one side and the mysterious Qar on the other. The latter race occupies the northern part of the continent known as Eion, their area is commonly known as the Shadowlands, due to the fact they are covered in an everlasting fog. Southmarch is the northern most human stronghold and is the primary location of the series.

The series start when the border between humans and Qar suddenly starts to move, after centuries of stability. However, as the people of Eion are divided in multiple states, Southmarch is soon sieged by those Qar.

Shadowmarch is comparable to other epic fantasy series such as Wheel of Time. When I compare both series, I notice a few things. Unlike Jordan, William keeps the number of main characters low and all of them are introduced in book one. In WoT we start with quite a large cast and Jordan keeps adding people over the series.

Because he keeps the number of characters low, Williams is able to control his story better than Jordan. Less characters means also less distracting plotlines. In Shadowmarch all subplots are essential to the main story, whereas WoT is full of plotlines which could easily be removed. Also Williams spares us a lot of trifles, which helps to keep the pace of the story up.

Many fantasy novels follow the so-called cycle of the hero quite closely. Some features of this cycle are: a seemingly ordinary hero, someone who becomes the hero’s mentor and so on. Though it would be too far-fetched to claim Williams totally ignores this cycle, he deserves credit for not following it too closely. Therefore this series becomes less predictable, something which is reinforced by the fact that Williams include several interesting twists in his story.

Fantasy authors like to borrow stuff from each other and Tolkien is the major supplier of fantasy tropes. In particular they like to reuse the same races: elves, dwarfs and so on. A few authors, Robert Jordan for instance, take efforts to invent their own races. Williams, however, shows here a bit less originality. His major races are, besides humans, funderlings (dwarfs), the Qar (called “fairies” throughout the books), the rooftoppers (gnomes) and skimmers.

Of these races, the last one is by far the most original one. Funderlings, for instance, are described, like other dwarf folk, as skilled in stonecraft. Despite this lack of imagination, Williams succeeds in giving those races a meaningful place in the story, i.e. he does not include his races only for their own sake.

Though the single most important influence of modern fantasy is Tolkien, but in this series there is one author whose influence is quite noticeable: Lovercraft. As the series progress it is revealed that not only the god worshipped by the people are real, but they are asleep. Also we learn that some people suffer of nightmares involving the gods. Both are essential features of Lovecraft’s horror. Barrick’s insanity and his nightmares, the strange city of Sleep (the Nameless City), the sleeping Gods beneath Southmarch castle (Cthulhu sleeping in R’lyeh) have all their parallels in Lovecrafts work.

Williams’ greatest achievement is perhaps he goes beyond where Lovecraft stopped by incorporating the latter’s themes into a grand saga.

Overall the Shadowmarch  is a well-written fantasy series. In my opinion Williams succeeds in combining philosophical topics with a great story arc and well-developed characters. Hence I have no problem to recommend this series.

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