Saturday, September 19, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Otherland - Tad Williams

There’s been a bit of review silence from me lately, by and large because I was reading the last two books of Tad Williams’ Otherland quartet: two books that totaled 1850 dense pages. Needless to say, these novels slowed down my usual rate of bookish consumption for a few weeks, thus why I’ve been so quiet.

When it comes down to it, I wasn’t actually planning to do any sort of review of the Otherland books (in order: City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, Sea of Silver Light). I read the first book 2 years ago, took off a year before reading book two, then took off another year before picking up book 3. Each book is so very thick and robust that I needed the reset time between stories. I fully intended to take another year long break between books 3 and 4, but found that I couldn’t focus on any of the books I tried to pick up after Mountain of Black Glass, so I gave in to the inevitable and finished it off.

Anyway, the scope and content of these books is so epic and ranging that I was going to wimp out on a review simply because there was SO MUCH content that I was daunted by trying to summarize anything. However, chatting about the story with JD the other night I realized that I had quite a lot to think about, so I figured I may as well put down a few thoughts. No plot summary or character recap, but allow me to ramble on some themes.

Thought the first: Otherland should be Required Reading for anyone who considers themselves and fantasy or sci-fi fan. The books are definitely a blending of the two genres, and they epitomize epic scifi/fantasy much in the way George R. R. Martin’s work epitomizes “hard” epic fantasy. The story in Otherland is enormous in scope and unbelievably imaginative. I often talk about books being multi-genre, but Otherland covers all of the ground between fantasy and science fiction and goes down several rabbit holes even further into their sub-genres. Tad Williams pretty much hits all of the bases.

Thought the second: pacing. How impressive is it to maintain acceptable pacing through 4 books that range from 600-1100 pages? It’s a feat in and of itself to tell that huge of a story and only very rarely have it drag. I will gripe a bit that each book was not a stand-alone package – the books had nice swells and lulls in action, but each one definitely ended on a cliff-hanger and the next book picked up right where it left off. A small gripe, but still something that irks me. That said, the last book still managed one of the more impressive resolutions that I’ve seen in a series. All of the loose ends were neatly tied off and resolved, but each in a believable fashion. It was not a stretch to see how each storyline was resolved, and none of the many, many resolutions seemed contrived.

Thought the third: characters. There are a LOT of characters in Otherland. If I were they type of person to re-read books, I’d re-read Otherland and keep a huge diagram of characters and how/when they meet other characters. Tad Williams does a very impressive job of making each character very memorable, in spite of such a large cast – even with year-long gaps between the books, I was always quickly reminded who was who. Even more impressively, all of the characters are realistic, flawed and individual. I can think of maybe 2 characters that seemed at all flat to me, which is quite good in a cast of 30ish. Williams also managed to create some characters that I truly despised, as well as using them on-screen without burning me out on having to deal with them. Additionally, he wrote one of the scariest mother-loving bad guys of all time.

Thought the fourth: relationships. Much as all of Williams’ characters were interesting and distinct, so were his character interactions and relationships. Everyone had very different chemistry, and he illustrated many of the different aspects and levels of love and hate. More than anything, I was impressed by how varied and nuanced the relationships in the core characters were, especially when everyone’s threads started crossing during the third book. My emotional string were definitely played like a harp. Rarely have I seen an epic work that developed its characters and relationships as carefully as its world.

Well. I guess I did have a lot to say – this ramble has gotten quite long! More of a discussion than a review, but whatever you call it I’m going to bring it to a close. Otherland is a spectacular set of books and you owe it to yourself to read all four if you are a fan of the fantasy/sci-gi genre!

3 comments:

gjacoby said...

As one who actually did have to wait between Mountain of Black Glass and Sea of Silver Light (I read the former my freshman year of college, and the latter on my way home from junior year), I completely understand not being able to wait. Williams knows how to write a cliffhanger.

Though the book two ending still ranks as the most evil cliffhanger I've ever read. It's just mean!

Jacob Topp-Mugglestone said...

That reminds me: I really need to reread Otherland. I massively enjoyed it on my first read through - I was surprised that he'd written a sequel short story in Legends

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