Friday, August 14, 2015

Crossing a Bridge With No Far End

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 53
Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet

Leodora has a rare talent for shadow puppets in the Balinese style. The daughter of the most famous puppeteer ever, she has inherited his tools and his library of myths. Driven by a rebellious spirit and guided by her late father's manager, she is quickly building fame as she travels the world over, performing on one bridge after another.

Oh, did I mention this is a world made entirely of bridges?

My favorite part of any fantasy novel is the middle. In the center of the book, the story could go any direction; the tale is made of nothing but possibility. Beginnings are freighted with scene-setting, and ends close doors that can never open again, but middles could unfold into anything. They are the most promising part of the book.

The world of Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge is a trackless ocean, spotted with a few islands and an eternal ribbon of bridges on which people live. Every bridge has native traditions, unique culture, and puppet-play myths that let Leodora bloom into an ever-better artist. It's hard to imagine an editor who would actually approach a fantasy writer these days and ask, "Say, Gregory, would you mind making your work a little less like The Lord of the Rings?" Yet that's what this author has done with this story.

Shadowbridge establishes the characters and their relationships. Less a single novel than three novellas leading to a shared nexus, it introduces a handful of people who have been touched by gods, whose lives are no longer their own. All come from backgrounds of violence and fear, curses they desperately need to outrun. And they find themselves on Colemaigne, the bridge where Leodora's father and mother brought an angry god’s wrath upon an innocent city.

The second book commences just moments after the first, when old secrets begin coming out, and blood guilt must be paid. This volume hints that something bigger even than the story is occuring. If ancient myths and holy revelations implied that this world is built on the ruins of an older world in the last book, we get more of a hint what that looks like this time. But this is only hinted; it's not really part of the story, which moves on without ruminating on anything that doesn't advance the heart of the story.

Gregory Frost
And story is just what happens here. The characters relate to the world through narratives and folk tales. Like Chaucer and Aesop, what matters in actual events is only comprehensible in these novels according to how the characters relate to their stories.

Shadowbridge is a smart book that avoids many common fantasy pitfalls. Brief encounters reveal that this world teems with elves, fauns, and fairies, but they don't play much of a role. Magic is a force, but no one gets hung up on bearded patriarchs in pointed hats. And the gods are as doomed of characters as the humans whose lives they direct.

The characters seem to leave ruin and destruction behind, no matter what they try. Violence and abuse shift from one person's shoulders to another. Scarcely a life they enter that they don't leave shattered. But their life and art bring joy and life to their world all the same, and in the final confrontation, Leodora has the chance to make amends for her father's transgressions. The characters are neither good nor bad; they are like forces of nature.

Seasoned fantasy readers will spot the influence of Michael Swanwick, Robert E. Howard, Madeline L'Engle, and others. This world’s sacred icons bear more than a passing resemblance to the characters in The Matrix. And the relationships that inhabit the book are familiar to anybody who ever longed for a life at a slightly higher level of accomplishment.

Frost demonstrates himself a master of scene-setting. His detailed but never windy exposition fills us with a pleasing sense of wonder at his world, which is the reward many readers seek in fantasy. Lord Tophet is a complex and compelling villain whose climactic conflict lets us peel through his many layers, and Leodora's too. And Frost’s admittedly abrupt ending leaves so many possibilities open that the characters remain alive in our minds.

This pair, essentially one novel in two volumes, is not high-minded literature demanding academic study. But it is a stirring adventure that invites us on a journey in our mind. That, in the end, is what fantasy readers seek in a book. That, and a middle that justifies the beginning and the end.

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