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Shadowbridge
Gregory Frost
Del Rey, 255 pages

Shadowbridge
Gregory Frost
Gregory Frost is a graduate of the writing program at the University of Iowa and of the intensive Clarion Writers Workshop at Michigan State University. He attened the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop at NC State University and, in the 90s along with Judith Berman and Richard Butner, took it over and moved it to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. It has since returned to the mountains of North Carolina.

Gregory Frost Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

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Shadowbridge is something different. It is not quite fantasy and not quite science fiction. Not quite a quest epic and not quite a character study. But it is, for the most part, a good read. There are pleasures to be found in the 250-plus pages that comprise the story of Leodora, a shadow puppeteer, and Diverus, a god-touched musician, and their performances across the interlinking, innumerous bridge-cities (called spans) that stretch across the fathomless oceans of Shadowbridge. If there are also non-trivial defects in the novel -- a flashback to Leodora's childhood that stalls rather than deepens the narrative, and a penchant for portentous plotting rather than scenic exploration -- they do not spoil the book's delights. Half a cup of wonder is better than none.

The world of Shadowbridge is an archipelago of bridges and buildings, islands and boats, and stilts and stories hovering inexplicably over the expanse of a nameless watery abyss. Think of the solar-circumscribing plats of Ringworld, the floating precariousness of Cloud City, and the far future otherness of Gene Wolfe's Sun series. The premise is a promise -- of a peripatetic tale, of a trapeze act of storytelling weaving the baroque and the banal into something utterly strange. Does Gregory Frost fulfill his promise? The beginning is propitious. Masked, pseudonymous, and fearless, Jax climbs to the summit of a span, determined to set eyes on a statuary god. But the god returns her gaze. Tests her to recount the tale of his apotheosis -- a pitiless story exploring the death-stenched underside of heroism. He knows her true identity: she is Leodora, the daughter of a renowned puppeteer, forced to perform anonymously because she is a woman. The god warns: "Jax rattles the darkness where he travels. A piece of it is sure to come calling." Then we step, with Leodora, back down to not-quite-solid ground.

And this is where Frost begins to stumble, as he interrupts the forward flow of the narrative to drag us back to Leodora's youth. For eighty pages, we linger with Leodora: we witness her guardian uncle grow vicious as with a cancer, we sympathize with her claustrophobia brought on by the choking conservatism of her peasant fishing village, and we watch her bittersweet departure on her own terms as a puppeteer. These eighty pages feel like eighty years, however. Because they relate a typical coming-of-age story, they hold little surprise. Unlike the equally young protagonist of Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Frost's heroine we know is in no true danger. And with nowhere to go, the plot pools, becomes stagnant. After a brief reprieve in the present, Frost whips us back again into the past, this time for the origin story of the other main character, Diverus -- a mute orphan literally godstruck with musical genius. For an analogous effect, imagine if the television series Lost devoted three fourths of each episode to a character flashback and only one fourth to plot development. A flashback half as long dispersed throughout the broader narrative would have maintained the momentum of the novel without sacrificing the heady tonic of a non-linear narrative.

But compensating treasures are scattered throughout the novel. Frost's world is deeply imagined if only lightly explored. An Indonesian flavor dominates his sea-world, a refreshing departure from the Ren-fair staple of so many fantasies. The interludes of myth and fable are exquisitely composed, much tighter, sharper, brighter, and more poignant than the background stories. The premise continually excites, as when, in a story of how Leodora's father became a legendary puppeteer, we learn: "He did something no one else had ever thought of -- he started collecting the heritage of Shadowbridge. Diverse elements he folded all together, making something that had never been before. It became a real giant of a story, a spiral of a tale, just like Shadowbridge itself, all linked and spun together into something bigger than any of us can see." And Frost translates real-world terror into fantasy with all the notes intact, as exhibited in his description of a brothel in which children's bodies are sold so the depraved can experience the sexual excitement of a demon devouring a boy's soul. In its ability to convey escalating horror mingled with the grotesque, the scene recalls the nightmarish rape from David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch.

But, in the end, the novel remains conflicted. It employs a frame story to be daring and different but then steps back from the ledge over which Nabokov or Borges would take a subversive plunge. It presents us with a unique meta-world, but refrains from embarking on a Swiftian survey of wonders. And it imbues the story of Leodora and Diverus with a divine portentousness that lies too heavily on their (and the novel's) shoulders. The author has his priorities backwards. He splashes around but never wades fully into the reality of his world -- which leaves the fact that the fate of that world hinges on his characters' destinies a little dry.

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog, readslikealawyer.blogspot.com, is always wide awake, though.


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