In Shadowbridge, Gregory Frost takes a typically science fictional conceit, what Roz Kaveney has so engagingly called the big dumb object, and places it in a fantasy context, and he does so with considerable success. Shadowbridge is largely a water world, though individual islands dot its surface and there are tales of whole continents at the horizon’s edge. Shadowbridge is also a maze of interconnected spans, enormous bridges each the size of a great city or small nation, arching over entire oceans, connecting one span to the next, seemingly without end. Travelers can walk from span to span forever, never returning to the places they’ve left, unless they choose to reverse their paths. Or they can take a ship and travel to an entirely different spiral made up of different spans inhabited by different cultures. Shadowbridge is a lovely conceit, a fine place to set any number of tales, and Frost did in fact publish a previous story set in this world, "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes" (Asimov’s, September 1998), which was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award.
Telling tales is what Shadowbridge the novel and its sequel, Lord Tophet, are all about. Leodora, our protagonist, is a storyteller, a shadow-puppeteer and a phenom, skilled beyond her years at an ancient art. She is also the daughter of mysterious parents. Her mother, Leandra, a notorious, red-haired beauty thought by some to be a witch, is long dead. Her father, the great shadow-puppeteer Bardsham, is long gone, perhaps also dead, although no one knows for sure. As the novel opens, Leodora, has climbed one of the tallest towers on the span known as Vijnagar. Later in the evening, her famous alter-ego, a young "man" known as Jax (whose existence is made necessary by a prohibition on many spans against female shadow-puppeteers), will perform to great acclaim, but for now Leodora needs to be both alone and herself. The tower is decorated by stone statues of the various gods of Shadowbridge including one Shumyzin, who suddenly comes alive and demands that Leodora tell him his story which, Scheherazade-like, she does at some length. This sets up the structure of the novel. Leodora’s own adventures, and those of her troupe, alternate with formal stories which are interpolated into the text, some told by her, some by other characters, some presented within the context of the puppet theater, others not, many of them tales of the Gods, though some of those deities, like Meersh, are both fools and tricksters. Leodora’s tale of his violent life and eventual deification pleases Shumyzin, who, in return, offers her an ambiguous warning: "Jax rattles the darkness where he travels. A piece of it is sure to come calling." There is also some confusing mention of "the one you travel wit h... The deathless one. The one who visits you in your sleep ... your coral friend." Unfortunately, but predictably, just as the god is about to tell her "the most important thing," the sun sets and he returns to stone. Leodora, frustrated, climbs down from her high perch and returns to the tavern where, as Jax, she is to perform. There she dodges the wife of the tavern owner, who has a thing for Jax, and is berated by her aged and alcoholic manager, Soter, for being late. Finally she performs a puppet play called "The Tale of Creation."
In a second chapter, which John Clute in a somewhat exasperated review on the Sci Fi Weekly website dismissed as a "thoroughly routine Young Adult novella, a hugely distended tale," Frost flashes back to Leodora’s earlier adolescence to explain her origins. We see her growing up on a small and impoverished island at the foot of the span the islanders call Ningle-in-the-Clouds, the much abused stepchild of her dead mother’s brother. The chapter does fit a typical YA/bildungsroman model, though I found it a better read than Clute did. Leodora must deal with both her uncle’s brutish behavior and the islanders’ prejudice against anyone who yearns for something better. She has several encounters with the supernatural and eventually learns more details of her mysterious parentage. This causes her to reject two inappropriate suitors and flee to Ningle, dragging the drunken Soter (revealed as a former member of Bardsham’s troupe), her father’s puppets, and the mysterious (and almost weightless) statue called the Coral Man up the narrow staircase that leads to the span. Next, in a third chapter we learn story of the Diverus, the boy who will become the final member of Leodora’s troupe. Born severely retarded, Diverus is staked out by his owner inside a Dragon Bowl, a curious structure which every span seems to be equipped with, within which miraculous events occur, at the whim of the gods, on rare occasions. After nearly starving to death, Diverus is visited by one such miracle, gains normal intelligence and is transformed into a musical prodigy. Eventually he is rescued from servitude by Leodora. The rest of Shadowbridge recounts the troupe’s continuing adventures, replete with a number of interpolated stories, supernatural encounters, and hints that something dark and dangerous is indeed on Leodora’s trail. The volume ends, quite abruptly, with our heroine’s own spectacular encounter with the numinous in yet another Dragon Bowl. Frost makes no attempt to tie anything together at this point; there is no conclusion. This seems like something of a cheat (it annoyed Clute mightily) and I was fortunate to have both Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet available simultaneously so I could read them as the single novel they actually are.
We begin Lord Tophet with any number of questions to be cleared up. Who is following Leodora? Why can’t Soter, who obviously cares about her, tell her the truth, and why is he so obviously consumed by guilt? Considering how radically Diverus’s life was transformed by his encounter with a Dragon Bowl, how will Leodora’s similar interaction with divinity change her? Who or what is that damn Coral Man that Leodora has been lugging with her from span to span in the bottom of one of her puppet cases? Will Diverus, who’s obviously nuts for Leodora, ever get up the nerve to tell her and, if he does, how will she react? To what extent do the interpolated stories interspersed throught the two volumes actually reflect Leodora’s own life? Finally, who is Lord Tophet and why does a character not even mentioned in volume one of Frost’s tale rate eponym status in volume two?
Frost does answer most of these questions to the readers’ satisfaction, though the ending of Lord Tophet seems a bit rushed and the monstrous title character, whose minions, we discover, have been looking for Ledora throughout, doesn’t quite live up to his billing when he finally appears on stage.. What stands out in both books, though, are three things. First, there is the awesome basic conceit of Shadowbridge, Frost’s world-spanning bridges. Then, there are the many interpolated stories—"How Death Came to Shadowbridge," "The Tale of the Two Brothers," "The Tale of Meersh and the Sun God"—some of them somber, some hysterically funny and very bawdy, each a small masterpiece. Finally, there are the many truly eerie moments that Frost is so adept at creating, episodes in the main plot, where reality bends and the reader slowly realizes how strange things have become. In Shadowbridge there’s a lovely scene where Leodora, wandering through a park, comes across a group of characters who are playing or spectating a complex board game. Gradually we realize that we appear to have walked into some sort of quasi-Japanese fantasy, replete with fox spirits. Later in the book, Leodora has a similar encounter with a slightly daft parade of spirits of the dead that might well have appeared in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which I intend as a high compliment). Frost’s conceit of a house of ill repute where patrons inhale smoke from gigantic hookahs, each of which is inhabited by an afrit, is equally powerful. In Lord Tophet, Leodora and her troupe have several nicely eerie encounters with Lord Tophet’s deadly henchmen, evil but decidedly odd (and not really all that intelligent) beings who manifest themselves as disembodied heads and hands within a pool of darkness. And then there’s the giant, two-headed stilt puppet that’s normally operated by a puppeteer who works the device from within, but which occasionally appears to act on its own. Though Frost’s plot is occasionally disjointed and his pacing could be steadier, moments such as these make Shadowbridge and its sequel (when read as one volume) well worth the effort.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.