City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Surprising, complex, and insane...but I like it.
The City of Golden Shadow has been sitting on my bookshelf for over ten years, unread. In times past, I've picked it up and tried to read it, only to give up after twenty pages or so. That being said, I'm glad that I decided to stick it out this time, because this is an astonishingly complex, intricately woven masterpiece.
Now, to get it out of the way, let me begin with why I never got far in previous attempts. The book starts off on a battlefield with Paul Jonas, a lone soldier stuck in a ditch listening to a man screaming insanely in the background. The imagery is fantastically realistic and more than a little disturbing. In short, it gives every impression of being a war book, which isn't a genre I particularly enjoy. Alas, until this time, I never made it far enough in to realize that nothing is as it seems at first glance.
Keeping in mind the realistic kick off, it doesn't take long for the story to take its first turn for the weird. Like some kind of odd Jack in the Beanstalk, Paul gets hit by a missile and dies, only to awaken at the bottom of an enormous tree that reaches into the clouds. At the same time, everything as far as he can see in any direction is wiped clear, a desert wasteland, leaving him nowhere to go but up. So, he goes up, where he finds a cloudscape overlooked by a castle. Taking a chance, he follows a road of clouds to the distant building and in doing so meets a mysterious, winged woman kept in a cage like a songbird, but her master, megalithic clockwork giant, returns and a terrifying chase ensues as Paul desperately tries to escape. Then, he wakes up on the battlefield. Could this dream be the result of a head injury? He's not so sure...
After this, we fast forward into modern (future) South Africa to follow Rennie, a university teacher who specializes in Virtual Reality. After a bomb threat turns real, she meets up with a student and they decide to meet as planned. !Xabbu, a bushman, is brand new to VR, and Rennie worries that it might be too late to teach him. This side plot goes on for some time, until the first glimmer of trouble in Rennie's world appears when her little brother and his friends stumble into a simulation they can't handle. She comes to their rescue, but only finds two of them, the third having fallen through a hole in the "world". And, the complexity builds as more players are introduced: one, a barbarian in middle country, another, a twelve year old with a secret friend in the U.S., and of course, the bad guys.
At first, the various characters and scenarios are cycled through almost at random, but later it becomes obvious that nothing that happens in the story is insignificant. The truth is hard to pin down; the story jumps between virtual life and real life, and each chapter begins with a news-feed that gives a sense of the "now" in the real world: politics, pop-culture, interactive story casting calls, to name a few.
The story is a roller-coaster ride, dizzying at times, but exhilarating and rewarding as a whole. I devoured this book, despite its 700+ pages, and eagerly purchased the next in line before I finished the first.
In short, I loved this book and am it's earned a prominent place among my all time favorites, alongside The Lord of the Rings, Battlefield Earth, and The Death's Gate Cycle to name a few.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves epic fantasy or sci-fi, to gamers, and to those who enjoy a good puzzle. On the other hand, I don't recommend it to those who like a story to get to the point in short order. This story takes it's time, and the journey is well worth the effort.
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