[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a guest review by Karen Burnham, proprietor of Spiral Galaxy Reviews. Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She also writes for Strange Horizons, SFRevu.com and others.]
REVIEW SUMMARY: Diverse adventures, with annoying coincidences.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The adventures begin for two interesting young people touched by the gods.
PROS: Lovely stories-within-stories; interesting world-building; empathetic characters.
CONS: Too many places where odd details or unlikely coincidences kicked me out of my suspension of disbelief.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthy fantasy novel, but with more than its fair share of annoyances.
“The first time Leodora spoke to a god, she had climbed to the top of the bridge tower and she was masked.”
What a fantastic opening line! So we read of Leodora climbing the bridge tower. She has been masquerading as a young man, since female performers are banned in this part of the world. Her hair is bound and she wears a mask. She reaches the top of the tower, lets her red hair flow, takes off her mask, and then a statue of a god animates and speaks to her.
Wait, that awesome opening line said she was masked, but she took off her mask before speaking to the god. So now I stop and think: is the “mask” now meant to be symbolic, is it her inner self that’s masked, was it a continuity error…?
Little things like that kept me from enjoying this book as much as I could have. Often I would be reading along only to be jarred out of the flow by something that didn’t seem to make sense. Luckily there were many lengthy sections that I could enjoy uninterrupted, but those would make the next intrusion all the more jarring.
Leodora, although a young woman, is a master puppeteer. Her stock in trade is stories. Embedded throughout this book are stories and myths that she has learned over the years. These myths are beautifully written and none of them lead to any moments of interruption. After Leodora’s encounter with the god, we go back and learn about her childhood. She was an orphan, raised by her unpleasant uncle. As she got older, her uncle got much, much worse, often being violent. From another villager, Leodora finally learned about her parents. She determined to follow in the footsteps of her father Bardsham, a world-famous puppeteer.
Leodora is a very strong character. She is practical, talented, and a hard worker. Once she determines to get away from her island village, abusive uncle, and awful arranged marriage, she gets right down to business. However, there had also been a mysterious supernatural force calling for her to do something for years. Then a sea dragon shows up and by letting her ride it causes her to break some sacred island taboos. After that she couldn’t stay even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t. All of this seems like redundant help in leaving that Leodora really didn’t need. A practical, talented girl getting away from a bad situation would have been enough, why all the supernatural aids? It seems like authorial overkill.
Having seen Leodora safely away from her village, we next get the story of Diverus. He was born severely mentally deficient, probably autistic. Eventually abandoned by his family, he is chained to a “dragon bowl,” a place where the gods sometimes randomly appear and give gifts. He is lucky enough to be present at the visitation of a god, but the god’s gifts appears to be nothing more than a pile of what may be Tupperware [pause for a moment to consider if this is an sf tale in disguise?] His “owner,” being disappointed at Diverius’ poor profit, sells him to a “paidika,” a place where young boys are exploited for the pleasure of older men. [But not *that* way. Pause to wonder why the author feels the need to replace all too real sexual abuse and drug use with something magical.] However, it appears that the gods have given Diverius more than his owners suspected. Thus when he finally meets up with Leodora, [pause to consider that this meeting requires no fewer than three unlikely coincidences to happen all at once] he is a natural partner for her in her continuing adventures.
One can forgive a lot when the characters are likable, which both Leodora and Diverius are, the story-telling interesting, especially the mythic sections, and the world-building well done. Sometimes a major source of interest in a story is the puzzle of how such a world could come to be, and that is the case here. The entire world is a series of bridges, with each “span” having its own language and culture. [Pause to consider another authorial convenience: when characters travel from span to span they are magically altered to be able to read and speak whatever language is native to the new span – no need for translators!] The author provides us with several scenes from the creation myth of this world, describing how such an unlikely situation may have come to be. It is fascinating, and lends an exotic air to the atmosphere of the story. Also, there are hints that the gods may be particularly interesting, and we only get tantalizing glimpses of them. Shadowbridge is a book that adopts a Mediterranean-style of stories-within-stories, and does it well. Much like the Arabian Nights it keeps things interesting and allows the story teller to speak of many things that the heroes may not directly encounter. Also, just as the Mediterranean story tellers existed in a place where many cultures overlapped, the easy travel between the “spans” allows for the mixing of exotic cultures. It’s nice to see fantasy authors moving away from the generally medieval European landscape that has come to be associated with the fantasy genre. We live in a diverse multicultural world, and Gregory Frost makes it clear that Leodora and Diverius do as well.
Add that to all that the fact that it’s easy to root for Leodora and Diverius, and I suspect I’ll probably end up reading the sequel volume, annoyances notwithstanding. The promotional material says that this is book one of a duology, even though it feels like Leodora’s adventures are only just beginning. Book two will have to be fairly packed to make good on all the promises made here, and we’ll have to see if Frost can deliver.