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Tensions wrack the court of Southmarch Castle. King Olin has been captured by the bandit rulers of Hierosol in the distant south and is being held for ransom, but raising the money is beggaring the kingdom. Olin's heir Prince Kendrick is trying to hold the country together whilst his younger twin siblings, Barrick and Briony, have their own problems to face.

Meanwhile, in the far north, beyond the enigmatic Shadowline, the Twilight People are raising fresh armies to return to the March Kingdoms and avenge their defeat in a war three centuries ago. Far to the south, on the continent of Xand, a common girl is taken to wife by the Autarch, the god-emperor of Xis, for reasons utterly unknown to anyone. And far below Southmarch Castle, ancient secrets wait to be discovered...

Shadowmarch is the first book in the four-volume series of the same name, and is epic fantasy at its most straightforward. Tad Williams made his name with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a big series which arguably helped establish the modern fantasy paradigm (Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire followed in the trail it blazed) before switching to the far more original SF cyberfable Otherland. With Shadowmarch, Williams has returned to his roots, going once again for that big fat fantasy sweet spot.

This is a questionable choice for those who are familiar with the genre, since there are elements of Shadowmarch which recall not only other big fantasy series, but Williams' own prior work. With the best will in the world, it's hard not to feel that Shadowmarch Castle is a rebuilt Hayholt, a feeling enhanced by the presence in both works of sinister faerie folk and a race of diminutive good guys. Echoes of A Song of Ice and Fire can also be detected, from the barrier stretching across the northern border of the kingdom to the misadventures of a princess (well, almost) on another continent, although the details are rather different.

Oddly, despite being pretty traditional, Shadowmarch remains an engrossing read. Williams is an accomplished-enough writer that in his hands even the most familiar of plot twists feels fresh and interesting. His ability to juggle moments of genuine menace alongside ones of amusing whimsy (the Funderlings and Rooftoppers initially feel incongruous but become a more intriguing subplot as the book develops) adds a sparkle to the sometimes plodding political intrigue and the somewhat vague menace from the Twilight People (whose motivations and goals are not so much under-developed as left completely unexplained). The vast Shadowmarch Castle may feel a bit close to the similarly Gormenghastian edifice of the Hayholt (from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), but it's also an atmospheric and rich setting for the story.

The characters are an interesting bunch, although again we are treading familiar waters here, with Briony as the tomboy-princess-who-wants-to-mix-it-up-with-the-boys and Barrick as the crippled-prince-who-harbours-a-dark-secret, not to mention the innocent-young-girl-who-becomes-a-major-power-unexpectedly and the soldier-on-a-mission-to-prove-himself. Again, Williams uses some nice elements of characterisation to bring these archetypal figures to life and make the reader care about what happens to them, but their familiarity may be an issue to some readers. The most interesting character is probably Chert, simply because dwarves get short shrift in most fantasy (to the point why you wonder authors bother to include them) and it's good to see one not only at the centre of the action, but also as the most well-developed character in the book. Unfortunately, a few side-characters are less complex, and a few are downright cliches (particularly some of the "Get this peasant out of my sight!" nobles).

Ultimately, Shadowmarch (***½) is the epic fantasy novel as remade by Blizzard Entertainment: totally unoriginal, very comfortable and somewhat predictable, but polished to a terrific sheen and enjoyable for all its familiarity. At the same time, that familiarity does make it impossible to recommend unreservedly. The foundations are solid, however, and certainly I'll be checking out the next book. The novel is available in the UK and USA now, along with its sequels Shadowplay, Shadowrise and Shadowheart.
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on 27 April 2007
This book screams quality. The author has created a believable world and populated it with interesting, well rounded characters. The story is slow to get going, but stick with it and you will be rewarded with a tale that promises to make an excellent trilogy.

My one complaint about this book is that, particularly at the start, it skips between characters so fast it is difficult to develop a rapport with them. I don't think the number of characters is a problem, as it is good to have a large cast for an epic fantasy series - it is just a bit frustrating to read only a few pages at a time on each character before being whipped off to a different one. This doesn't by any means ruin the book, but it prevents it being as good as it could have been.

On the whole, an excellent novel that I hope is the start of an excellent series.
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on 2 October 2008
Tad Williams obviously has a rich imagination and the world in which Shadowmarch is set is very well thought out. The inhabitants of this world are also enigmatic and interesting, there's the dwarf-like Funderlings, the fairy-like Rooftoppers, the mysterious Twilight People, as well as countless warring factions of humans.

But the book falls down in the huge number of characters that Williams throws in, then singularly fails to do enough with. He jumps between story threads, flicking from one character to another, but never dwells too long on any of them, revealing little to the reader. He only really scratches the surface of the main characters and after a great deal of reading you feel as if you hardly know any of them.

Because of this thin characterisation it becomes difficult to establish any attachment to the characters and you find your interest in the story starting to fade. Considering this book is a stamina-sapping 800 pages you can't help but feel Williams could have done much more to engage the reader with the characters, there seems far too much padding here.

It's a pity as the central storyline is a good one and certainly has the depth to stretch over the length of a trilogy, but the lack of any real standout characters, with the emphasis seemingly more on quantity of characters rather than quality, let's the story down and leaves you with no real urge to read anymore in this trilogy.
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on 4 March 2007
I [...]
In Shadowmarch, though, unlike MS&T, the menace is ratcheted up until you almost feel you're reading a ghost story. Williams knows how to build an uncomfortable atmosphere until you're scared - but not quite sure what of - now THAT's brilliance.

Williams' talent isn't so much about inventing new things to go into high fantasy, it's in the quality of his writing - he's writing high fantasy in a different manner. He can really write, and I can see how he's improved (which doesn't make me a whit less enamoured of his earlier works). If Williams wrote in any other genre he'd win the Booker prize, or something equally prestigious, for Shadowmarch.

But don't let that put you off if you hate contemporary literature! Williams' writing isn't contrived or showy, just quietly brilliant. He's always focused on telling the story and, I'm sorry, I disagree that he switches viewpoints too often - I think my fellow reviewer just is snatching too-small pieces of time for reading, and though I sympathise, you really have to give an author a chance. You wouldn't intermittently listen to your mp3 player at the theatre, would you? That's why Williams 'caught' him later than other readers would be caught - because he WILL catch you.

I think this would be a good book to read as your first ever fantasy novel, which is the highest praise I can think of. Other than that, just read it, people! (NB the first book in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is 'The Dragonbone Chair' - and don't forget Tad Williams' stand-alone book 'The War of the Flowers', or his more sci-fi-y 'Otherland' series - all are more than worth your time).
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on 3 December 2012
After a decade Tad Williams returns with a new trilogy that takes the fantasy genre to new heights, with the most ambitious and impressive work that I have encountered this year. Unlike `the memory, sorrow and thorn' series Shadowmarch is totally original, unique and set within a distinctive world that is on one hand so far removed from his other works but which contains just as much imaginative inspired creativity within a complex plot that it could only be produced by this writer. This is high, epic fantasy at its very best that is exciting, intricately detailed (especially in the world-building) and insightful, which sent chills down my spine as I lost myself within a captivating & compelling saga.

Shadowmarch, Volume 1 is set within a world that is dominated by the human race that has proved their supremacy and dominance over all, by forcing the Qar into the far North. The boundary between the Qar and the humans is a veil of mist called the Shadowline that renders any trespasser to loose their mind; hence no one has as yet ever attempted to cross it. The Northernmost kingdom occupied by humans, Shadowmarch, falls on hard times as its King is captured by a deadly foe leaving the land in disarray to young fifteen year olds. A young crippled Prince called Barrick is unconcerned as to the nature of his responsibilities, and Princess Briony is headstrong and tactless in her manner and approach to matters of state thus the kingdom is doomed to failure when an enemy calls. The greatest threat in all of history now stands at Shadowmarch's door and as the impending danger looms on the horizon, the youngsters are faced by other enemies within the city's walls including their own Stepmother. Suddenly as the Shadowline begins to move after many centuries, the vengeful and merciless army of Qar begins to march across the land and into battle with their worse fears about to come to pass...

This magnificent new world is truly spellbinding and which juxtaposes all other works by combining Fae and beings of mortal flesh, together in one inspired and remarkable creation that is truly fantastical. The complexity and detail is absolutely extraordinary, leaving me astonished knowing that I had encountered something quite special within the fantasy genre. Character-driven and full of electric tension, drama and twists & turns the intensity of the plot will have you glued to the page and lost within the most thrilling tale, of revenge and retribution. The historical detail that emphasizes the meaning of duty and responsibility, leadership and betrayal is exquisite and the main element within this book that I really did love for it gave it so much depth and realism to the human's kingdoms & world. Combining Fae was a most peculiar twist but one that works brilliantly and is so convincing, it just makes this fantasy world even more exciting as if you have plunged into the most imaginative dream; that is ingenious. This epic tale of magic and hidden mystery, revenge and ambition is so absorbing and intensely gripping and so once you have picked it up you will not want to put it down!

Full of action and drama, this first part in a trilogy will appeal to fans of Stephen Erikson's `Mazalan book of the fallen' series and Greg keyes `the chronicles of Thorne and Bone' series or Russell Kirkpatrick's `Fire of haven' trilogy.
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Fantasy writer tad williams starts a new trilogy here. In a world of countries on the verge of war, one is in turmoil as the king is a prisoner elsewhere, and the shadowline, which divides their world from the world of the fairy creatures, is moving forward. their enemies, both human and otherwise, are on the move? Can the kingdom, and young royals briony and barrick survive and save the day?

A little tricky to get into thanks to an introduction that fills in a lot of detail about the world in very matter of fact prose, and then a prelude that does much the same. But after that the prose is very readable and throughly absorbing. There's a reasonably sized cast of characters but not so many that you won't have problems recalling them all, and they're all well written enough that they do appeal.

This is eight hundred and thirty two pages long, and the first part of a trilogy. thus it ends on several cliffhangers. But I really, after reading it, want to know what will happen next. and that's a sign of good writing.

If you like big long fantasy series you can really get your teeth into, then should more than suffice
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on 10 September 2012
As other reviewers have mentioned this is quite a derivative fantasy series. There are several parallels with another more famous series:

-Focus on a "northern noble family".
-Threat by non human's from beyond a northern barrier.
-Sub plot about a girl from a hot "southern" continent.
-Murderous political intrigue amongst the northern nobles.

Why this doesn't really matter is that Tad Williams can write well and construct a tight, well plotted story.

One criticism I would have of the more famous fantasy rival is that it drags on and on, getting more and more bogged down in plot minutiae rather than relay the big issues as well, like the non human threat. The difference with Tad William's series is that he not only focuses on point of view characters and their stories but also the big it's shorter.

Overall this is a very enjoyable, exciting fantasy series that I would have no problems recommending. It's on my top ten list.
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on 6 April 2006
I have just completed this book and enjoyed it a lot. I also broke my golden rule of never buying books in a trilogy until they are all published as I hate waiting for the next instalment to come out!
The book involves a small number of key characters: the young prince and princess regents, a dwarf (one of the best and most "realistic" version of a dwarf I have come across), the captain of the guard and a young girl in a distant land "married" to the god-king. These characters (aside from the last) are all in a far northern kingdom beign threatened by its previous inhabitants, the faeieres, who reside behind a mysterious barrier known as the Shadowline.
I like this movement between characters (a la George R R Martin) as it keeps you in suspense and keeps things interesting and if you are not as keen on some narratives as other then they are over soon enough :)
The faeries are well handled and suitably mysterious and alien, though i expect we will see much more of them in later books.
This first book sets up the story well for the remainder of the trilogy - now just hurry up and write them!
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The beginning of the new Tad Williams trilogy and one that seems to be following the latest wave of fantasy novels, dealing with not only a cracking storyline but also dealing with the complex social issues of the characters as well as the emotional aspects and the backstabbing double dealing of the political situation that surrounds them, as oppossed to character hears about evil, grabs sword and attacks.
For me this, I believe, will lead the already popular Williams to a new generation as well as demonstrating his talents to a number of others who haven't yet tried him but who have gone through people like GRR Martin and Greg Keyes.
At the end of the day though, what does this novel offer the reader? For me this is a tale that bridges the world of fantasy, blends it with a number of different genres and also has that wonderful quality that no one is immortal, proving that even the toughest can die through a quirk of fate whilst others who would have been thought of as weak manage to struggle through.
A great tale, with many a twist in the plot that is a damn fine start to his latest epic
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on 10 January 2013
This was my first experience of Tad Williams and I have to say I struggled to finish it. The pace was hamstrung by the constant changing of point of view making the narrative flow cumbersome and uneven. Having read George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson I am used to this style and keeping track of a variety of storylines and characters, but this book did not work for me. I found it quite frustrating as I kept having the feeling that the story was about to break free of its chains and run, but didn't ever quite manage it.

I think I will try The Dragonbone Chair as it seems to receive more universal praise, though this was nearly enough to put me off Tad Williams altogether.
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