Shadowheart – Tad Williams

Shadowheart by Tad Williams
Stars: Three of five
Goodreads summary: Southmarch Castle is about to be caught between two implacable enemies: the ancient, immortal Qar and the insane god-king, the Autarch of Xis. Meanwhile, its two young heirs, Princess Briony and Prince Barrick, are both trapped far away from home and fighting for their lives. And now, something is awakening underneath Southmarch Castle, something powerful and terrible…  Shadowheart  – Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists on Goodreads.

Shadowheart is the fourth and final book in Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch trilogy.

I read book one probably in 2005, so it’s taken me about six years to finish the series. I now try to defer starting one of these epic series until it’s at least half written – glaring at you now, G.R.R. Martin.  I embarked with enjoyment and high hopes, but that started deflating a little during the second-to-last book.

In the end I felt fatigued finishing this fourth book.  When I read the third book about a year ago I think I was plagued by a few deja lu feelings.  In this book, the symptoms are worse: we already know pretty much all the players, the important transformations and deaths have mostly all occurred, and the battle for Southmarch feels more like a siege.  If you’ve enjoyed the series so far then by all means finish it off with Shadowheart; but, if you have been losing interest to date, in my opinion this book won’t redeem it for you.

I grant you that the books cover a lot of geography and address many characters, yet Shadowheart particularly felt like a lot of pages traversing not-enough action.  Williams is diligent in wrapping up the many story-lines – meting out rewards and karmic revenge, but I just didn’t get caught up in the people as much.

Ware Spoilers below


Briony and Barrick shine the most as characters in this final volume. Both mature in interesting and divergent ways.  I am thrilled that Barrick stops whining, and Briony truly takes charge of her world.  She even ends up in battle, realistically worried that she’s undertrained and smaller.

Various of the fairy Qar are well-depicted purely on the characterization level.

Vansen’s battle leading the Funderlings against the Xixian army underneath Shadowmarch: by far the best part of the book.

I did enjoy Briony’s blatant introduction of Vansen to her theatrical troupe friends.  ‘And this is Captain Vansen, my lover.’

There is a nice riff on Elizabeth I’s situation: Briony declares she will remain unmarried as queen so that her marriageable status can be used as diplomatic leverage. Sadly still, this felt completely pragmatic to me – shown and not told.  (I do admit – I’m referencing history by-way-of-fantasy.  Hopefully C.E. Murphy kept relatively close to the textbook with that or I just revealed some astounding ignorance.  Ah well, history ain’t never been a thing for me.)


Probably what this series needed was drastic surgical editing to reduce all 4 books to three.  I think there’s a book-worth of flab distributed through there.

Pace-wise this just took too long to wrap things up.  In contrast with The First Law trilogy (especially Last Argument of Kings), the characters don’t develop in surprising ways nor does the plot astound.  When the pinnacle battle was won, I looked at the solid chunk of remaining pages and thought “awww, really? what else do we have to cover?”

Briony and Vansen finally get together as a couple.  Gee, who would have seen that coming? There was a fair amount of stating that they were in love with each other; preceded by Briony’s musing (unsubtly) that Vansen is often in her thoughts.  This is followed by a stage of  ‘I suppose I do feel something but it can never be’.  I wasn’t convinced, which really weighs negatively on the book.  This should have been a huge emotional payoff in seeing their mostly-happy ending.

I was disappointed that Qinnitan, and King Olin, played such small parts.  Should the book have been made even longer to include them more fully? No way.

Barrick and Qinnitan’s relationship did not feel like true love to me.  Convenient? yes. Dramatic and plausible… not so much.

Yasammez – resigns her leadership of the Qar army, and dies fighting the raised, raging god.  Promising opportunities for really important emotional stuff, but I wasn’t affected.

The ‘big reveal’ of Chert Blue-Quartz’s scheme to defeat the god: flooding the deep Mysteries with the ocean, smacked too much of delayed ghostpigs or re-routing the main deflector dish through subspace frequencies.  Big gimmick saves the day from rampaging deus ex idolatum.

Phew. That was a lot of vituperation. I think it’s because there was a skeleton of the book that this should have been, so the divergence troubles me more.

Or maybe I was resenting having to trudge through so many pages.  Have I ever complained about books being too long?  Not that I recall. This took me a full week to read.  Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to immerse myself – so the fault, dear reader, may not have been in the books but in m’selves.

Next up: something sweet, fast, and fun.  Nothing on my library queue fits that bill, so I visit my own collections for Beauty by Robin McKinley.


Other reviews of Shadowheart (added by me, not generated)

Did I overlook your review? Let me know in a comment, and I will add the link here.

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