Stories within stories are one of the greatest tricks in fiction and have been around ever since people have been telling stories. Gregory Frost’s latest novel, Shadowbridge, is a fine example of this storytelling method used to great effect. The protagonist is Leodora a storyteller, a shadow-puppeteer who hunts for the stories she tells. In many ways, Leodora is a traditional heroine – she’s an orphan, is mistreated by her caretakers, and eventually runs away. The running away occurs about halfway through the book, but I don’t think this would be a spoiler by any means. Her reputation has grown to become the greatest shadow-puppeteer since Bardsham, who himself has an air of mythology. While the story has the feel of a traditional fairy tale, Frost makes it clear this is no sanitized kiddy tale as the story progresses.
The original fairy tales brought together by the Brothers Grimm had a very dark edge as well, so in that sense, Shadowbridge and its heroine Leodora would work as a modern example of those stories. The novel opens with a story of one of the Gods who lives on the world of Shadowbridge. This gives a flavor of what is to come, and by simply stating that it was the “first time Leodora spoke with a God…” Frost is telling readers that his protagonist holds a high place in this world.
Although Leodora is a strong protagonist the world of Shadowbridge itself is the star On a seemingly landless world, an enormous bridge was dreamed into existence by a fish and a man. Yes, it sounds simple and silly, but a testament to Frost’s skill as a writer is how well and charmingly he pulls off the conceit. Each span of the bridge is essentially its own country and spans are populated by strange and fantastical peoples.
While the majority the framing story of Shadowbridge is Loedora’s story, she wouldn’t work as effectively if she were the only focal character. The only characters who don’t really show much depth are Leodora’s aunt and uncle, the people who raised her. They fill their roles very well, abusive male paternal figure and abused and timid maternal figure, and Frost manages to push the right emotional buttons in order to build empathy for Leodora. Her real father; however, is a different story. We never meet him but his presence is felt throughout the story. Her father, Bardsham, was the greatest puppeteer and storyteller Shadowbridge ever knew. Many parallels are drawn between Loedora and her father Bardsham. Many of the stories about Bardsham are told by his former assistant and the man who is responsible for training Leodora in storytelling and showmanship – Soter.
One thing Soter imparts to Leodora, and a reason why she cannot truly tell her stories in public is because she needs a musician. About halfway through the book, we meet her eventual partner, Diverus. Leodora’s upbringing is a cakewalk compared to what we learn about Diverus. His story, like Leodora’s has a fable and myth-like quality to it, and Frost manages to keep this timeless flavor to both of their stories while making their individual stories, and everything about Shadowbridge fresh and vibrant.
As I said, I really enjoyed the story-within-story motifs Frost employed throughout, as well as the general feel of the book. The power of story, the balance of mythic and freshness with characters, and the sheer imagination on display throughout all worked very well. The only kind of negative criticism is that the pace ebbs and flows a bit unevenly in the early portions of the novel. Once Frost dispenses with the comfy-coziness and reveals some of the darker elements, Shadowbridge completely sucked me into the story.
Lord Tophet is the second half of the Shadowbridge duology, picking up virtually where Frost left Leodora at the conclusion of Shadowbridge. Her fate was left up in the air literally, as we learn she is transported to something of mix between a higher reality and a dream world where stories have even more power than they do on the spans of Shadowbridge. Perhaps more so in this second volume in the sequence, the value of stories is emphasized.
In order to get out of the dream-like higher reality, Leodora must tell more stories. The nebulous aura of the higher world has an effect on Loedora, making her and Diverus think they have only been there for a day. In many ways, these stories possess fable-like qualities relating a life lesson. In other ways, they are just purely engaging. I wonder now if Frost has had these stories nestled in his head for a while and appropriated them for this set of books. Not that such an appropriation is a bad thing; if anything it speaks to Frost’s great ability at storytelling.
The setting is another powerful aspect of the story – whereas Shadowbridge logically took place on a massive bridge, the setting in Lord Tophet is on something of archipelago, possibly a nod to Le Guin’s Earthsea, since that is such a landmark story in the genre. The islands setting also present a parallel the nature of stories in general. In different hands, stories can have shifting and more floating, almost stream-of-conscious nature to them rather than the structure and stability of something like a bridge.
There is a strange attraction and romance between Leodora and Diverus that proves complicated, but not in the sense that it bogs down the story, rather, it is a consistent complication. Frosts development and spotlighting of these characters continues along the same well-crafted vein in which he started in Shadowbridge. Rounding out the triptych of main characters is Leodora’s mentor and father-figure Soter. His attitude is somewhat darker in this book, but no less consistent with the story itself.
Magic lands are powerful, as are magical artifacts in this story; Leodora is also in possession of a talking doorknocker in the shape of a Lion’s head through much of Lord Tophet. Like many similar talismans in fantastic literature, the Brazen Head offers little in the realm of straightforward answers. Again, Frost shows his great ability to remain thematically consistent in his storytelling – for Leodora’s stories are rife with multiple interpretations.
The grandest stories recounted in Lord Tophet; however, fittingly are related to the title character himself. For much of the story, Tophet played the role of dark puppet-master, directing forces against Leodora from the shadowy corners of the story. His full reveal is somewhat of a downer, but still effective. Soter relates in wondrous detail a story to Leodora about Tophet and her father, the Great Bardsham. It is a powerful story and illustrates a hinted at depth to Soter’s past. The other story is Leodora’s (somewhat) expected interpretation of Tophet’s story that makes for a rousing climax to the novel and perhaps her story arc. Nearly every concept and story conceit Frost employs throughout the book can be seen as statement on the power of story. The stage and workmanship that go into telling stories and perhaps my favorite, that is, the “hunting for stories” the shadow-puppeteers must do daily in order to better connect with their audiences.
Even though Frost has stated these two books were intended as two separate books, one can’t really judge or fully appreciate Lord Tophet without the first part of the story. Though Frost examines the power of story from different perspectives in the two novels, the cliffhanger nature of Shadowbridge and continuation of the story in Lord Tophet really gives me the feel as a larger story and a split novel. The one thing that surprises me about these two novels is that the publisher hasn’t yet omnibified them into one volume since they do work to tell a full story. Regardless, this complete story in two volumes is recommended.