Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tad Williams' Shadowplay

For the baseball-prone, that title is not a typo. We're talking TAD Williams, the author of perhaps my favorite fantasy trilogy (but only if you count Lord of the Rings as a four- or five-book collection). He's also the author of the only fantasy novel I'm aware of that is cast with cats (Tailchaser's Song). I'm not kidding. And it's very good.

My boys ask me for "Three Little Kittens" stories every night. Maybe that's where they come from?

TED Williams is the last man to hit .400 and also is frozen right now. That's another topic.

In any case, TAD Williams is publishing a second fantasy trilogy, set in a new world with new characters and magic schemes and everything. The first book in 2003 was Shadowmarch and the second book was published last year as Shadowplay. I just finished it, so here's my review:

Occasional flashes of brilliance and cleverness that you really only get from Williams. What I like about Williams is his ability to surprise you in the plot, but in a way that seems very natural. So I like his stories best of all. There's enough of that in these two books that it's as much fun as it should be.

However, one of his other strengths is also a weakness. Williams has a habit of making all of his characters believable, rational, and multi-sided. This is a good thing, don't get me wrong. The biggest problem is that these characters are so immediately drawn that they feel contemporary. They seem like 21st-century people and they seem to have 21st-century priorities in a 16th-century world (yes, 16th-century, because we have gunpowder and muskets and such in this book, along with fairies and magic mirrors and such).

Much of Williams' writing is a deliberate response to Tolkien, both homage and rebellion. He's said as much in interviews, so I know I'm not making this up! Tolkien's stiltedness and notions of honor actually work to his advantage, especially once you have the humanizing figures of the hobbits thrown into the mix. But here's the point: hobbits are hobbits and somehow are a convincing part of that world. Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar who lived through WWI and WWII, so his writing was that of a combination of the 8th and 20th centuries. The thing is he got both those centuries right. Tad Williams gets the 21st century right, but I'm not so sure about the 16th. He even puts in some aspects of medieval history that I've never seen put into a fantasy trilogy before, but that I know were common "back in the day": holding kings for ransom, complicated royal family structures, different races interacting, etc. The details are there but the characters think like we do. And that's a problem. Beowulf didn't think like we do, that's part of the point of the genre. Making Beowulf think like we do results in the recent motion picture, which also had his moments but I'm ambivalent about the whole thing put together. Again, like Williams, very clever, perhaps a little too much so.

So is Williams' problem that he's too good of a writer? I think good in some ways but not good enough in others.

Another minor annoyance is it took me until 2/3 of the way through the second book of the trilogy to find out the events that were actually moving everything else. I think that should be first-book material at the very least. Lots of events that seemed discordant and hodgepodge suddenly made sense and tied together after that revelation. Since "tying things together" is what I think Williams' plots do best, I'd rather know the main theme earlier and then work out how the pieces fit into it as I go along. It's like a symphony where you don't hear the main theme until 2/3 of the way through. Too long.

Regardless, I ate it up and I have to recommend this as well as anything by Williams. For all his faults, his books and fun and inventive, and I can't wait for the third one to come out. Especially after I've finally found out the points of the trilogy!

No comments: