Book: Otherland - City of Golden Shadow - Livre d'Or — LiveJournal








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livredor
Book: Otherland - City of Golden Shadow
Sunday, 28 December 2003 at 09:29 pm
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Author: Tad Williams

Details: (c) 1996 Tad Williams; Pub 1998 DAW books; ISBN 0-88677-763-1

Verdict: City of Golden Shadow is way bloated, but aside from that not bad.

Reasons for reading it: darcydodo recommended Williams to me ages ago. And because of Christmas and so on I ended up doing what I never normally bother with, namely travelling across country during the day, so I needed something to keep me occupied during about 20 hours of travel. I always reckon that thick paperbacks are the best value for weight for this kind of situation.

How it came into my hands: Among my fabulous haul of second hand books from my trip to Berkeley last year.

Um, I almost feel tired just thinking about reviewing this huge monster. Not that I mind long books (and I certainly appreciated it while I was bored travelling), but this is well into the ridiculous. Particularly so because the story doesn't even properly get started; the whole 800 pages is just introducing the characters and setting up a scenario To Be Continued in three more volumes, no doubt equally large. Absolutely no chance of a story which is resolved in its own right.

Not that CoGS is unremittingly bad; on the contrary, there were many things that worked well. But they were rather buried in a lot of to my mind unnecessary padding. And CoGS isn't so outstandingly good that I'm prepared to plough through 3000 pages + just to get a complete story. Let alone the effort and money of having to look for and buy three more big books. I'm kind of disappointed that I've spent a non-trivial amount of my life reading this book, and all I've got out of it is an adventuring party about to set off.

To be fair, anything that I read straight after The Player of Games was going to suffer by comparison, and it's true that I've been reading a lot more hard SF than fantasy in recent months, which probably jaundices my view a little. And there's a fair amount of novelty in CoGS, as well as rather good takes on old themes.

I like the leavening of straight fantasy with almost-SF speculation about future technology and social structures; to my mind, the realist sections of the book are its greatest strength. CoGS is partly set in a very specific future, namely South Africa of a hundred years hence, and it presents an interesting and plausible projection of that particular country's future history. The way VR is used to provide a link between the fantasy and realist elements is also clever, playing quite nicely with the advanced technology / magic paradigm. I think it's setting something up along the lines of the different levels of reality influencing eachother in non-standard directions, which looks fun, but not sufficiently so to convince me to read the rest of the series to find out.

Despite the rambling, and the over-multiplied plot threads (the more annoying because they don't seem to be connected yet by the time the end of the first volume is reached), CoGS manages to be exciting enough of the time to be worth persevering. And I think Renie works well as a viewpoint character; it's only a pity she's crowded out with heaps and heaps of less well-drawn secondary characters.

At times, though, CoGS is annoying sentimental. The originality of introducing a Bushman character in a high tech future is rather spoiled by the cloyingness of the whole at-one-with-nature, unspoiled by the evils of the industrial world wisdom, which is badly overdone. And there are far too many sickeningly cute kids, particularly sickeningly cute dying kids. And throwing in an unhappy childhood to account for the Dread's sadism does not make him a three-dimensional villain. The other thing that really didn't ring true for me was the way that characters who are supposed to be habitués of online interaction are so completely fazed by the idea that people sometimes (shock! horror!) present a persona that is unlike their real character! Various of the twists in the story seem to rely on this one, and it just seems a very clumsy plot device.

I think I would have been more forgiving of CoGS's faults if it hadn't gone and hubristically compared itself to both Carroll and Tolkien. Anyway, even if it were in that sort of league, it could pay homage to other authors without having characters say 'Hey, this is just like in Lord of the Rings!'.

Well, City of Golden Shadow certainly made the journey less boring, and for that I'm grateful.


Moooood: okayokay
Tuuuuune: Liz Phair: Why can't I?
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:January 4th, 2004 09:58 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 09:58 pm (coalescent's time)
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I've read the whole Otherland series and whilst I did enjoy it, I don't think I'd recommend it to people. On the upside, it doesn't have two 'middle volumes' it has two 'end volumes,' which makes the reading more rewarding, and I found all four volumes very easy reading - although they were bloated I didn't notice much. Also, I quite liked the fact that I could read a fantasy novel but pretend that I was reading science fiction! ;-)
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livredor: bookies (thanks to darcydodo)
From:livredor
Date:January 6th, 2004 11:26 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 11:26 pm (livredor's time)
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Thanks for these comments, Niall!

I've read the whole Otherland series and whilst I did enjoy it, I don't think I'd recommend it to people.
Fair call. I generally like the act of reading enough to get me through much worse books than CoGS. I did enjoy it, just not as much as I would have done if it had had even the shadow of a standalone structure, and I'm not convinced enough to justify the fact that I spent the best part of two whole days reading it!

On the upside, it doesn't have two 'middle volumes' it has two 'end volumes,' which makes the reading more rewarding
Yes, that encourages me quite a lot. I think I won't actively avoid the rest of the series; if I happen to come upon them cheaply, and if I happen to have some reading time free, I may well read them at some point. After all, I've managed to read three volumes of Goodkind's Sword of Truth series before I gave up in disgust, and they're easily as bloated as CoGS, but considerably worse in quality.

I found all four volumes very easy reading - although they were bloated I didn't notice much.
I take your point. I didn't find CoGS hard going, and it wasn't difficult to keep track of the plots and characters, it's just somehow not exciting enough to justify how long it is.

Also, I quite liked the fact that I could read a fantasy novel but pretend that I was reading science fiction! ;-)
As you well know, you can argue about the boundaries till the cows come home, but CoGS didn't strike me as particuarly science fiction-y. I'd put it down as fantasy with pretensions. It fits all the conventions of fantasy (down to having a Michael Whelan pic on the cover!); the only twist is that the almost obligatory realist linking sections are set in the future. Mind you, I'm quite happy to read fantasy; I don't have any particular reason to pretend that it's SF!
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:January 5th, 2004 06:02 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 02:02 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Here we go playing catch-up...

I have read all the Otherland books and I regret it, because I found them hugely bloated, I do not find the significance of VR to these people to work, and the underlying premise has some really stupid bits in which admittedly you do not see in the first book IIRC.

I have two more serious problems with Williams' attitude in general. One is I think in the same direction as your point about his sentimentality and sickeningly cute kids, which is that the degree to which he bends over backwards to include people with specific handicaps and people from specific ethnic backgrounds and so on is really annoyingly tokenist, it feels like he's running down a checklist. [ "Hey, have we got a black lesbian yet ?" ] The shape of his story does not need it; that's an outside-story imperative. The other is the way in which he keeps going "Ha ! You thought this person was [ some element of default white European male ] for the last n hundred pages wheras in fact they were [ black/female/whatever ] all along". Which is all the more annoying when, you know, I didn't.

I think Tad Williams can really write; I loved his story in Tales of the White Wolf, which is basically Elric teaming up with Jimi Hendrix, and I thought "The Writer's Child" in Sandman: Book of Dreams was awesome. I just don;t think fat fantasy is his metier.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:January 7th, 2004 12:13 am (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 12:13 am (livredor's time)
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Here we go playing catch-up...
Welcome back *smile*

I have read all the Otherland books and I regret it
Why did you read all of them if you were so unimpressed? Was there no point where getting right through to the end didn't seem worth it?

I found them hugely bloated
Yup, that's my major criticism of volume I at least.

I do not find the significance of VR to these people to work
I don't think the descriptions of VR and the roles it plays in people's lives are hugely convincing. But I like the concept of the fantasy world that people portal into being based on highly sophisticated VR.

There's something about the idea of a sufficiently complex simulation being equivalent to reality which reminded me of Egan's Permutation City, and obviously CoGS is far less clever, but I felt inclined to be generous to it for Egan's sake. I know that's not very logical, but there you go.

the degree to which he bends over backwards to include people with specific handicaps and people from specific ethnic backgrounds and so on is really annoyingly tokenist
Yes, thank you. That's exactly the problem and I didn't think of it until you pointed it out. Tokenism, ugh. I saw lots of little bits of characterisation that annoyed me, but didn't spot the common theme.

I think Tad Williams can really write
Thanks for the recommendations; I will look out for those.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:January 7th, 2004 03:16 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 11:16 am (rysmiel's time)
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I have read all the Otherland books and I regret it
Why did you read all of them if you were so unimpressed? Was there no point where getting right through to the end didn't seem worth it?


I am very nearly incapable of abandoning a series once I have started it, and besides IIRC I read "The Writer's Child" when I w3as halfway though the series, which inspired me to hope he was going somewhere sensible and that maybe the apparent flaws were actually parts of something worthwhile I would not see clearly until the end.

I do not find the significance of VR to these people to work
I don't think the descriptions of VR and the roles it plays in people's lives are hugely convincing. But I like the concept of the fantasy world that people portal into being based on highly sophisticated VR.


Yes, but... I think the problem I have with it boils down to it reminding me of the genre of novels written by concerned conservative USAns to illustrate that role-playing games of the Dungeons and Dragons variety are instruments of Satan, in which roleplayers go mad by thinking they are their characters in reality; that just isn't the way roleplaying warps your sanity. Thinking of real life in terms of dice rolls is far more common.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:January 14th, 2004 10:16 pm (UTC)
13 days after journal entry, 10:16 pm (livredor's time)
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I am very nearly incapable of abandoning a series once I have started it
That must make you a very favourable sort of audience, especially for under-edited fantasy authors! I know what you mean, though; I find it very hard to do other than read a book through to the end, and I suspect that the only reason I don't take the same attitude to whole series is that my book-buying habits are very haphazard. So it might take rather a lot of time and effort to find sequels, and I'm not going to make that effort unless I really want to read the rest of the series. That reminds me, at some point I should make a list of the books I haven't finished, because there's very few of them.

"The Writer's Child"... which inspired me to hope he was going somewhere sensible
I like that, forgiving an author some flaws because they've written something else good.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:January 14th, 2004 10:59 pm (UTC)
13 days after journal entry, 10:59 pm (livredor's time)
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the genre of novels written by concerned conservative USAns to illustrate that role-playing games of the Dungeons and Dragons variety are instruments of Satan
I'm a little disturbed to think that such novels exist! Actually, in general I don't at all understand why people have such anxiety about roleplaying. I mean, people don't seem to be scared that chess players are likely to go round plotting out of game regicide, do they?

in which roleplayers go mad by thinking they are their characters in reality
OK, most of the literary negative portrayals of roleplayers I've seen seem to focus on the premise that people roleplay because they have absolutely no social skills and can't interact with real people, so they have to retreat into an imaginary world governed by rigid and explicit rules. (And if it's fairly hack-n-slash they don't even have to worry about their character interacting with other characters, I suppose.) At least this is in some way plausible!

Whereas I can't imagine how anyone would think they were their character. It's just as likely that people would think that they are a character from a film or novel, or that actors would lose sight of the distinction between their stage rôle and their real self.

Thinking of real life in terms of dice rolls is far more common.
True, but it's hard to regard this as a serious problem! I mean, sure, if someone says 'Curses! I fail my dex roll', they might be less readily understood than if they say 'Damn, I've dropped it.' But that's to do with making inappropriate sub-culture references, which is not something I think roleplayers are particularly more prone to than members of any other subculture. But I don't think it's a sign of lack of sanity!
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