REVIEW SUMMARY: An entertaining story about stories.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A young girl must discover her own story in order to save those whom she loves.
PROS: Engagingly written, well paced, with magic that is often truly random and magical.
CONS: While coincidence and plot convenience may be intentional, it’s still a bit eye-rolling.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a fun book to read, with lots of stories-within-the-story and characters you can root for.
The text on the cover says “A Shadowbridge Novel,” but that would imply that you could read this as a stand-alone story. Don’t! This is the second half of a novel started in Shadowbridge, and without reading that volume, this one will make no sense. In fact if you can, read them back-to-back. Neither of them is particularly long, and I can’t quite make out what is gained by splitting this novel into two books other than more money for the publisher. Be that as it may, Lord Tophet brings the novel to a satisfactory conclusion, one which fulfills and improves on the promise of the first volume.
We follow the story of Leodora, daughter of the famed story-teller Bardsham. Her mentor, Soter, was a friend of her father’s and tried to keep her hidden on an anonymous little island. However, one cannot keep true talent hidden, and he eventually follows Leodora as she heads out onto the spans, there to make waves with her own story-telling and to learn ever more stories. In the first volume she also picks up Diverus, a young man who is blessed by the gods with extraordinary musical ability (an interesting story in its own right)-the perfect person to accompany her on her journey. As the first volume closes, we get hints of some malign force hunting for her.
This volume opens up exactly where the previous one stopped, with no recap or summary. Leodora is being touched by the gods in the same way Diverus had been earlier, although to more subtle purpose. As the story progresses, she performs to enthusiastic crowds of hundreds, but always seeks out more stories. She and Diverus travel across worlds in search of more, but there are two stories that she needs more than any others-her own, and that of Lord Tophet. It isn’t in other dimensions or upside-down worlds that her own story will be found, and she eventually makes her way back to the “real” world of Shadowbridge, from there to confront the menace that has been following her.
I complained in my review of the first story about all the coincidences needed to make the plot work. Often, that sort of thing is the work of a lazy author. I now suspect that Frost is playing a deeper game. It relates to the fact that Leodora’s story-telling art revolves around puppets. She controls them, what they do, and how they are projected to the audience. Frost is making the point here that his characters are also puppets in his hands. All characters in stories are, and usually the story is stronger than the characters. As Terry Pratchett has pointed out in several Discworld books (Witches Abroad springs to mind), sometimes the story is so old and so strong that the characters have no choice but to follow its dictates. Frost tips his hand with repeated passages along the lines of: “…it was only then that he realized he was explaining situations, giving orders. Where the information came from, he had no idea.” “He watched them climb out of sight, unable to explain to them why he felt compelled to linger when there was nothing to see. He couldn’t have explained it to himself.” Leodora herself recognizes this tendency: “We think we’re acting upon our own whims and choices, but we’re not. We’re guided, ushered through the unseen pattern, some labyrinth or maze-like the world has all its spirals, we’ve each got our own.” Leodora is Frost’s puppet as much as the trickster character Meersh is hers. For some people this may be frustrating, as if seeing the author’s finger on the scales is cheating. I liked it. Once I realized that it was something he was doing on purpose, for a specific effect, it was easy to appreciate it instead of becoming exasperated.
There is plenty more in this book to appreciate. The nested stories are wonderful, as they were in the first volume, and some of them are hilarious. The magic in this universe is much more capricious than magic is in some fantastic settings. Sometimes magic ends up being as predictable as technology, but not here. With one notable exception (needed to bring the plot to its conclusion), magic here operates by the whims of the gods. When Diverus was touched, the gods also dropped down what appeared to be Tupperware containers. In one of the stories a brother asks for incredible speed, and is gifted with magic shoes that look something like Nike Air sneakers. The gods can show up and affect things, or not, at any time, and things don’t always work the same way for different people. I find this quite admirable, since in those fantasy universes where the magic is tamed and regimented, it often feels like I’m reading sf without the intellectual rigor.
Then there are the characters: the theatre proprietress, her animated and mute wooden puppets who used to be actors, the cargo-handling folks who live under the spans, all of these are interesting in their own right. They are only sketched in, but even their sketches are people you can care about. We also finally get the full explanation of why Soter has been such an ass through the entire novel, and it is intense. (Frost didn’t go for one rather predictable “twist” that I was afraid he was going to use, and I appreciate the fact that he avoided that temptation.)
Finally there is the setting. In the first book we’re introduced to Shadowbridge, where everyone lives on bridges that spiral out to infinity. You can either walk along a span from region to region, all with their own languages and customs or sail from one spiral to the next (Frost has a nice bit of semi-predictable magic in place to make this easier to work with). In this world there are islands, and the streets on top of the bridges, and the spaces beneath the bridges. It’s a beautiful world to visualize. In Lord Tophet, we see a little more of that, but also of spans destroyed by the evil that hunts Leodora, as well as another world that seems to connect all the others in some odd way. It’s a realm out of fairy tales, with its own peculiar rules, which reinforces the capricious and dangerous aspects of the magic.
What’s the take-away from the novel? Generally, it’s to take control of the stories that define you. Don’t be trapped by them (Soter) and don’t try to destroy/deny them (Tophet), but find the story that gives you what you need to get you where you want to go (Leodora). This is a story about stories and their power, and Frost has written a good one. However, it may be time to call for a brief moratorium on writers (story-tellers) writing about how awesome stories are. While stories of this types are often very good, since the authors sincerely believe what they’re saying, after the fifth or sixth one the theme gets a little stale. A few recent titles off the top of my head: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt, Vellum and Ink by Hal Duncan, The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, and I’m sure anyone out there can come up with additional examples. (I realize not all these books are “recent,” but I’ve read them all recently.) It’s an even more popular theme in short fiction. The books I listed are all first-rate stories, but taken together one thinks it might be time to give the “power of Story” theme a little time off.
Be that as it may, Frost has written an enjoyable conclusion to his novel. He takes some things which could have been weaknesses in the first half and turns them into strengths. He builds upon the world he set up in the first half to show us even more of the world, how it is threatened and how it might be saved. The “message” may be a little self-help-y, but Frost wraps up the Story in a well-paced, adventurous, and readable package.