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.