Tad Williams, the popular author of such fantasies as the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, Tailchaser's Song, and the Otherland tetralogy, has, over the last few months, begun an online serial entitled Shadowmarch. In our interview with him back in May, he explained how his experience writing long, complex, multivolume stories has taught him about writing in an episodic format, and how that would be of aid in writing the new serial: "I've learned to juggle storylines with a great deal of twists and cliffhangers -- you can't expect people to follow twenty or so main characters for four thousand pages if you don't push the action along pretty well."
The first five episodes of Shadowmarch are now available as a sample for prospective readers. And, as promised, they move along nicely, both setting up future action, and providing action enough to be entertaining by themselves. There are also lively bulletin boards, some fairly impressive art, and various other extras. However, readers should be warned not to linger over the text. When read straight through, Shadowmarch can be a great deal of fun; but paying too much attention to the details could spoil it.
One could begin with criticisms of the writing itself. For example, the titular Shadowmarch is first a fiefdom ("We are on the edge of Southmarch -- called Shadowmarch by some.") and then the royal domicile ("The nameless boy seemed disturbed by his first glimpse of the castle known as Shadowmarch."). Though it's certainly possible that the term applies to both, it's odd that a nickname for a region would be adopted by that region's palace. It's like Trenton changing its name to "Garden State."
Some of these confusions probably could've been avoided through more detailed world-design ahead of time. But, to be fair, one must note that Williams is writing each novella-length episode in just two weeks. Any writer who only wants to appear in public in cleanly edited prose isn't going to create a Web-serial with fan-world trappings, and anyone who only wants to read cleanly edited prose isn't going to invest time in reading Shadowmarch. So we will set such issues aside completely, and turn to the content of the story.
The northernmost civilized kingdom of the continent of Eion is called Southmarch. This geographical/semantic confusion is apparently the result of the other Marchlands having been converted into the Twilight Lands, a Serling-esque demense demarcated by a "shadowline" that appears, as the story opens, to be inching southwards. ("Shadowmarch," then, may be not only what the other denizens of Eion call Southmarch, but also a foreshadowing device.) The first five (free) episodes follow the royal heir Kendrick, and his teenage siblings, fraternal twins Briony (a talkative tomboy) and Barrick (a goth), as they worry over the kidnapping and ransom of their father by the bandit Ludis Drakava. Shaso, a ferocious "black man" from a conquered land, is the protector and trainer of the twins, and a gruff and intimidating sort (like Gurney Halleck in Dune). Shaso stirs up tension between the pair who, as Williams so unsettlingly writes, "are bound to each other in ways close as lovers' ways."
A second plot thread follows a couple of Funderlings (Tolkien's dwarves cross-pollinated with Weis and Hickman's Kender), Chert and Opal. The source of conflict in their case is Flint, the human child they adopt after he is abandoned by a group of menacing, black-shrouded Qar, who emerge from the Twilight Lands riding nightmare-horses. The plot threads are tied together well; to accent the sociological and metaphoric micro/macro relationship, Williams physically locates Funderling Town beneath the royal palace.
As heroic halfling Chert reports the encroachment of the Twilight Lands to kindly court doctor Chaven, mysterious orphan Flint -- just in case we forgot to read the Prelude -- drops furtive hints that he might be an important character in the evolving narrative. Meanwhile, Briony and Barrick hunt a wyvern, are introduced to the unpleasant breeding rituals of royal families forging alliances, and find that their family is under attack, possibly from within.
Shadowmarch, at least in its early chapters, seems to be so grounded in its genre as to be derivative. The geological names of the cave-dwelling little people, especially "Flint," appear to be a reference to Dragonlance, while the Qar riders strongly resemble Tolkien's Nazgul, though most of the time their race resemble the Unseelie Fae. Additionally, as is all too common in genre fantasy and sf, there are vaguely racist overtones to the portrayal of the human ethnicities and demihuman species. Of course, Shadowmarch is not unique in this respect. It is not nearly so blatant as, say, the Star Wars prequel. Stereotyping speeds the pace of the plot; using easily recognized molds saves time on character development.
Considerably more disturbing is the treatment of female characters. Granted, a medieval setting is not conducive to the happiness of women, but it's not just that. The author seems to take for granted that kind-hearted Opal should be patronized by her husband. Chert's choicer comments include, "Better angry gods than an angry Opal," and, "A childless woman is as unpredictable as a loose seam in a bed of sandstone." Briony calls the pregnant Queen Anissa the "Loud Mouse," and says of Anissa's maid Selia that she "walks like she's got a rash on her backside and she wants to scratch it on something." One might excuse this by observing that Briony is a teenage girl -- thoughtless sometimes, and unsettled by competition for the attention of her brother -- but it's also true that Selia seems to be a French maid, dialect and all.
Still, as I said, if one simply reads the story without analyzing it, it does make for excellent entertainment. This seems somehow fitting, since I imagine the author has to write in much the same fashion, plunging headlong through the plot without time to look back. And of course, if you want to spend more time on Shadowmarch, there's more to look at than just the story.
The online culture growing around Shadowmarch is fairly complex. Various public bulletin boards solicit fan art (most amateurish, some amazing), discussion of the work's newest plot developments, and even suggestions as to how the story should proceed. An open forum, called "The Quiller's Mint" (the name of a pub in Williams' world), where fans of Williams and Shadowmarch can congregate, has logged over a hundred thousand posts. Some very smart people have contributed to the design and functionality of the Shadowmarch site, a fact made clear by the ease of its access and usage, and the addictive nature of its social model. A newsletter (all fan-written) has been started, and a caste system, predicated on number and quality of bulletin board postings, has fostered a vigilant site-policing based on the power bestowed by fans to those among them who are the most obsessive.
The site also includes a mission statement, production diaries by Williams' wife Deborah Beale, a map of the world, extensive backstory, an art gallery featuring the work of Matt Rhodes (whose polished style is pleasantly reminiscent of Disney, particularly Beauty and the Beast), a pair of short stories set in the Shadowmarch world, and the abovementioned bulletin boards. There is a subscription price of $14.99 for access to the episodes and art galleries beyond the first few, and various other features. The website is a fascinating one, and the presentation and technical execution is impressive. If you're not in the mood for heavy literary works, and want to pick up a guilty-pleasure series, then you should at least check out the free episodes. If you want to dive into a fannish online community from which you might never emerge -- or if you're a sociologist looking to study such a community -- then this is definitely the place for you.