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Shardik Paperback – 1979
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I'll start off by saying that, much like Richard Adams' other works, the tone of the book is incredibly dark. Not only in his gruesome and harrowing descriptions of the brutalities of the world, but in the deeper psychological and emotional journeys the central characters go through.
I won't go into great detail with a synopsis of the plot, but it essentially adheres to a three-act structure: Man sets out on journey of conquest and achieves his goal, man lives the dream long enough to see it become his nightmare, man falls from grace and must claw his way back to normality.
The story focuses around a fantasy land (although one that could very easily be part of our world a couple of thousand years ago), and the politics, the wars, the beliefs and the far-reaching consequences of every action for its people.
To cover the negative points of Shardik - it sometimes feels as if it wants you to stop reading it. When things go bad for the hero they go *really* bad. Half way through the second act Richard Adams has essentially turned the simple and friendly hunter we met in the first couple of chapters into an abhorred tyrant, drawing out all of his flaws to the forefront and inflicting disaster after disaster upon him. Just as you think poor Kelderek can't possibly suffer any more, he's thrust into a situation even more disasterous than the previous one. The villians we meet are so abhorrent, so brutally realistic in their lack of humanity that just reading the chapters focused on them is almost painful.
All of this, of course, is a cyclical part of the main theme of Shardik, and the fact that Adams can wring every drop of emotion from the reader so forcefully is nothing but a testament to his writing ability. But gosh, it's hard to get through sometimes if you're looking purely to be entertained by a book.
As tough as some parts are though it's worth pushing on to the end. Everything turns out well (for the most part) and that light at the end of the tunnel is a real relief when it finally hoves into view, because in all honesty I found myself thinking for a good portion of the book that nothing positive could ever possibly come of it.
That said though, Shardik is a compelling read. The story is always moving forward, and while some of his characters aren't perhaps quite as deeply explored as they could be they are on the whole an exciting ensemble to spend time with. Adams' prose is also wonderfully adept at conveying the meaning of every motion, emotion, thought, and reaction. At no point does his writing become vague or lose its focus, and that combined with the story's solid sense of direction and meaning make for a book that is hard not to return to, despite how unpleasant it can sometimes get.