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Otherland Vol. 1:
City of Golden Shadow

Tad Williams
DAW Books, 780 pages

Tad Williams
Tad Williams is the bestselling author of Tailchaser's Song and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. He is co-founder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.

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Interview with Tad Williams

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

I'm not a major fan of Big Fantasy. I don't enjoy waiting several years to finish a story, or reacquainting myself with the world and the characters with every book -- not to mention the suspicion that the author could have wrapped things up in three volumes instead of six. But Tad Williams is an exception. His enthralling stories are well worth that multi-year, multi-volume, multi-page commitment.

Volume 1 (there are to be four) of Otherland, City of Golden Shadow, is basically a quest story, in which several disparate characters receive a summons and struggle to fulfill it, and in the process come to understand that the importance of what they are doing transcends their own personal concerns.

Renie Sulaweyo is an instructor at a South African university, an expert in the net, the huge virtual world in which most twenty-first-century commerce and entertainment takes place. When her brother Stephen falls into a coma that seems to be associated with his net use, she sets out with her student !Xabbu, a Bushman, to locate a cure. Instead, she finds herself moving deep into danger, a threat that seems somehow to be associated with a virtual vision of a beautiful golden city. Orlando Gardiner, a fourteen-year-old netgame player, has also received this vision -- and has his own reasons for pursuing it. Separately, Renie and Orlando journey toward the city, a quest that takes them to places they had no idea existed, and into peril they scarcely understand.

Meanwhile, Paul Jonas, a soldier apparently lost in both time and space, is fleeing from two ghastly enforcers. One is a group called the Grail Brotherhood, engaged in a very secret, very costly, very dangerous virtual reality project. The other is a psychopath named Dread who implements others' evil visions and is also fulfilling his own. Then there is a mysterious man named Mister Sellars, who in some way is in touch with everything, and is pursuing his own unexplained agenda.

City of Golden Shadow is a hugely complicated book. Williams does an admirable job of manipulating the multiple story threads, which start out completely separate from one another, gradually interweave, and all join up at the end. Though the novel finishes on a cliff-hanger, the reader has acquired a basic understanding of the story's frame, as well as an inkling of what's at stake. Yes, the book is basically setup; one has the strong feeling that it will be with the following book, River of Blue Fire, that the real story will begin. But it's fascinating, gripping, thoroughly entertaining setup. Things do get off to a bit of a slow start -- something I don't think could have been avoided, given the enormous amount of information Williams needs to convey to set up the principles of his world -- but the pace picks up about a quarter of the way in, and from then on never slackens.

Williams has created not one, but two richly detailed, thoroughly convincing realities: the actual reality of the twenty-first century, and the virtual reality of the net. In some ways Williams' vision of a multi-realmed virtual world existing in parallel with our own is reminiscent of the Virtu and Verite of Roger Zelazny's posthumous Donnerjack; but Williams' vision of virtuality is far less mythic and far more pragmatic than Zelazny's -- a net that can not only be imagined, but might actually some day come to be. And though it would be easy to slap a "cyberpunk" label on this book, with its net-traveling and troubling images of the future, the worlds Williams has created are, to my mind, much more subtle and nuanced (and plausible) than the standard cyberpunk dystopia.

Williams has a fertile imagination, and City of Golden Shadow is chock-full of strange and wondrous images: a virtual nightclub-cum-chamber-of-horrors, a shadowy ersatz Egypt, a very funny Edgar Rice Burroughs-ish virtual Mars, the golden city of the title. His characters are well-drawn and sympathetic -- a good thing, since the reader will be traveling a long way with them. In !Xabbu, the aboriginal African who possesses an instinctive understanding of the technological wonders of the net but hasn't left behind the spiritual insights of his ancestors (many of which parallel, in a mythic way, the action of the story), Williams treads a thin line between symbol and cliché, but he manages to pull it off. And although I was initially annoyed, for the same reason, by the pairing at the start of each chapter of an image of primitive artwork with a snippet of bizarre twenty-first century news, I stopped being bothered by it about halfway through the book, mainly out of admiration for Williams' amazing inventiveness.

City of Golden Shadow is a truly impressive work. It's clear that a huge amount of world-building has gone into it. That the effort of this is so nearly invisible, that the information is communicated in such an organic way, that the characters are so strong and the story so engrossing, is a real tribute to Williams' mastery of his craft. I'm eagerly awaiting the next in the series.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Arm of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her Web site.

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