Shadowheart is the concluding fourth volume of Tad Williams' most recent trilogy (yes, yes, I know), following Shadowmarch, Shadowplay, and Shadowrise, the last originally intended to finish the series but instead being split in half, leading to Shadowheart. The first book, Shadowmarch, started off a bit slow and had some issues I thought with pace and cliché. Shadowplay was a large improvement in nearly all facets, Shadowrise kept to the higher quality, and Shadowheart, I'm happy to say, mostly ends it all in strong fashion.
The plot, which has been wide-ranging in terms of geography and multiple plot strands, has narrowed to a single point, centering on the Eddon family's seat, the castle Southmarch, whose caverns below the castle were the site of an ancient battle between gods which resulted in the gods being banished and the portal closed behind them. But the mad Autarch of Xis has forged his empire as a weapon to slice open the path to the castle so as to gain the power of the gods for himself, and in Shadowheart he's finally reached his goal. One Eddon twin, Briony has returned with a small army she's managed to collect thanks to a young prince hoping to wed her. The other Eddon twin, Barrick, has returned as well, but is more Qar (faerie) than human thanks to the magical Fireflower inside him which gives him all the memories of past Qar kings, as well as some level of authority among them. Meanwhile, under Southmarch, the human captain Ferras Vansen leads an ever-dwindling group of Funderlings (Qar dwarfs) in an impossible battle against the Autarch, hoping against hope that the Qar army, which had originally come to battle the humans, will join with them against the greater threat. There are a few other plot lines as well, along with dozens of characters, but that quick little summary gives a rough idea of the main story line.
With everything coming to a head here, Williams has sacrificed some of his plot variation (a strength in the earlier books) for a much more streamlined storyline. What he loses in variety, though, he makes up for with a greater sense of urgency as nearly everybody is in a race against time, with the fast-approaching deadline of Midsummer's Eve (when the Autarch can perform his rite) looming over all. While this makes for mostly compelling reading, I do think Williams would have been better served had he managed to cut out 200-300 pages from the last two books and thus allowed for an even faster pace, one that matches the urgency a bit more faithfully. And I'm not sure all the juggled plot strands are actually necessary here. One, involving the usurper Tolly, for instance, adds very little to the story (is basically a weaker echo of the Autarch story) and could have been cut (along with its little spin-off plots) without losing much. Another plot, involving a sort of "ultimate weapon" also bears little fruit, feeling much more like an afterthought rather than a built-in storyline. Cutting these two, and perhaps a bit more, would also have let us spend a bit more time with some more rewarding characters who get lost a bit, such as Chert, one of my favorite characters from the earlier novels.
Briony's storyline is relatively strong as she tries to find her place in this upside-down world: is she queen of the Eddons now, with her father and brother gone? Is she tag-along to the prince who hopes to wed her? Can she regain the throne from the usurper Tolly and is that even the biggest priority anymore?
Barrick's plot, until the near-end, is less action-oriented than Briony's, more introspective, as he must find some way to integrate the Fireflower into himself before its power and knowledge and alien nature kills him. His slow movement away from his human self, and his growing relationship with the Qar queen (as well as her sister) is mesmerizing and as captivating as the battles being fought (though his own battles are great in their own right).
But for me, the best part of the plot was that involving Vansen and the Funderlings, who know they're pretty much fighting a losing battle but plan to lose it as slowly and in as costly a fashion as possible. Their slow retreat ever downward is a tour de force, pretty much the opposite of those grand battles we've grown used to in epic fantasy but no less thrilling and in many ways much more moving.
The climax of the novel is truly epic in scale, involving gods and giants and magic swords and desperate plans and a brave bat and . . . yes, I said a brave bat. It all works but what is most surprising about it all is that it doesn't come close to ending the novel. Williams takes a big risk here and goes on for another 125 pages or so, giving us ending after ending. I can't say we needed all 125, but 100? Sure.
Beyond the plot, the characterization is mostly sharp, especially Vansen, King Olin Eddon, the two Qar royal sisters, several of the Funderlings, the Roof-Toppers, and several others of the Qar. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed following the main characters (most of them), I thought Williams best characterization was done with the side characters, who were revealed in efficient fashion with vivid moments of dialogue or gesture, as compared to the main characters where sometimes I wished I were told less of their thoughts or changes and could have been allowed to simply witness them.
Finally, one of my favorite aspects of Williams, here and elsewhere in his writing, is how his view of the Faerie world is so much more diverse than most other fantasy authors. Where all too many give us the usual tall, lithe, and fair (not to mention good with a bow and with animals) stock type, and occasionally someone will give us two or three variants on that (their "dark" cousins), with the Shadow series they vary in size--some giant, some small enough to fit in your hand, color, shape, limbs, even substance and form as some seem mere flames in their armor. Even better, they vary in their politics and personality: rather than the usual monolithic portrayal, we see them fighting among themselves, mistrusting each other; and instead of the typical "aloof elf" presentation, we get funny Qar, nostalgic Qar, and bad-tempered Qar. In other words, we get an author willing to mirror the human range. It's an incredible palette of creativity and my only complaint is we didn't spend more time with them.
The Shadow series isn't without its problems. The first book starts off slowly, there are pacing issues throughout, the entire series probably could lose 300-400 pages, some of the actions and characters are a bit familiar, but the prose is always sharp; the characters grow, the plot picks up, emotions ride deeper, the worldbuilding is vivid, and by the end, you've been more than fairly rewarded for the time put into reading the entire series. Well-recommended.