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Otherland, Vol. 2
River of Blue Fire

Tad Williams
DAW Books, 634 pages

River of Blue Fire
Tad Williams
Tad Williams is the bestselling author of Tailchaser's Song and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. He is cofounder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 1: City of Golden Shadow
Tad Williams' Website
Tad Williams' Other Website
Tad Williams Fan Page
Interview with Tad Williams

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Tad Williams' Otherland is not a series in the conventional sense, but a single novel divided into four volumes. In order to make sense of the plot of Volume 2, therefore, it's necessary to begin with a summary of Volume 1.

In Volume 1, a group of characters undertake separate investigations of strange happenings on the net, the virtual world of commerce and entertainment that is as complex and significant as the troubled real-life world of the mid-21st century. Stumbling into intrigue and danger, drawn by compelling personal reasons and also by a mysterious, half-understood summons, these characters discover the existence of the Otherland network, an enormous inter-linked series of virtual domains so flawlessly engineered that, though they resemble nothing in real life, they seem as concrete as the material world. Otherland has been built by the Grail Brotherhood, a shadowy organization led by the fabulously wealthy Felix Jongleur, a man rumoured to be well over 200 years old.

Eventually the characters (in virtual form) find their way into Otherland, and gather in the golden city to which the summons has called them. They are met by the virtual manifestation of a man named Mr. Sellars, who explains that Otherland is in some way connected with the coma-like illness striking children all over the world -- an illness that has affected someone close to nearly all the characters. But at just this moment, Jongleur's enforcer, a serial murderer named Dread, launches a real-life attack on the owners of the golden city, who have defected from the Brotherhood. The characters are forced to flee into the network, taking with them only Sellars' plea to search for Paul Jonas, once a virtual prisoner of the Brotherhood, but now free and wandering somewhere within the huge reaches of Otherland.

Volume 2 opens with the characters' passage into a new domain: a giant jungle realm in which they are reduced to Lilliputian size. They realize that not only are they lost within the network, they are trapped, unable to go offline. Circumstance intervenes almost at once to separate them. Renie Sulaweyo, the university net instructor drawn to Otherland by her quest for answers about her brother's illness, and her student and friend !Xabbu, a Bushman, are swept from the jungle into a twisted version of the Wizard of Oz. Orlando Gardiner, who in real life is dying of a premature-aging illness, and his friend Fredericks, find themselves in a huge cartoon kitchen, from which they escape only to pass into a hellish version of Egypt, in which the Nile flows on forever and the desert never ends. Martine Desroubins, a woman whose real-life blindness has enabled her to develop unique ways of working on the net, travels with the remaining characters into a world where it is possible to fly just by flapping one's arms. Unbeknownst to this group, a spy was placed in their midst during the attack on the golden city, and Jongleur's enforcer Dread (working for himself now) has been watching their every move.

Meanwhile, Paul Jonas, the man for whom all these characters are searching, continues his haphazard progress through the domains of Otherland. He too is searching, for the beautiful dark-haired woman he has seen several times over the course of his random journeying. His memory of himself, once lost, is slowly returning. His pursuers from the previous book -- one fat, one thin, both terrifying -- are still with him, but he also meets a friend, who explains to him the nature of the universe in which he is trapped, and provides cryptic directions as to where he must try to go within it.

As with Volume 1 of Otherland, Volume 2 ends on a series of cliffhangers. There is no closure: the mystery of Otherland and its creators is still almost entirely opaque, and many of the recurring images and threads, though clearly significant, are still completely enigmatic. And yet the book is not without resolution. Most of the characters' outer travels are paralleled by inward journeys, through which they achieve resolution of some of the personal questions and issues with which they started out. And certain overarching themes have begun to emerge from the narrative. It is clear that the consciousnesses of the comatose children are in some way imprisoned within the network, like ghosts. It is evident that the goal of Otherland's owners is to find a way to recreate themselves within the network, and thereby become immortal. It's apparent that the network itself, still rising to full functionality, is beginning to develop serious problems. And it's clear that there is something evil loose inside it, a force darker and more fearful than death.

Whew! It took me quite some time to compress all that narrative, which represents more than 1,300 pages of text, into the above paragraphs -- and this summary doesn't even address the many subplots, involving Dread, Jongleur, Sellars, and a host of other minor but significant characters. Otherland is an incredibly complex work, bristling with themes, characters, symbols, and storylines. Williams juggles it all with remarkable skill. His choice to limit the POV of the main narrative to the same four characters is a good one, lending continuity to what might easily become a chaos of images and events. As it is, the course of the narrative is admirably clear; one is never forced to go back over the text to remind oneself of who a character is, or what happened in the last section -- quite an accomplishment given the amount of information that must be conveyed, and the rapid changes from scene to scene.

Like Volume 1, Volume 2 is skillfully written and flawlessly paced. The characters are sharply drawn and extremely appealing; more important, they don't remain static, as do so many characters in big colourful plot-driven works like this, but grow and change in response to the events they encounter. The domains of Otherland are mind-boggling in their variety and inventiveness; the cartoon kitchen stands out as a marvel of clever detail, but every one of these worlds -- and over the course of the book there are 11 of them, not counting the little snippets of "real-world" news Williams includes at the start of every chapter -- is fully realized and extremely vivid. The action is non-stop: Volume 2 is a much swifter book than its predecessor, which needed to convey a good deal of background information at the outset to establish Williams' context. Consistent with his vision of Otherland as a single, massively long novel, Williams has made no concessions in Volume 2 to rehash or backstory. There's a brief synopsis of Volume 1 at the beginning; beyond that, the reader is on his or her own.

One has the powerful sense, reading this novel, of a writer at the peak of his craft, in absolute control of his material. The technical difficulties of creating such a vast book, and of sustaining interest and tension over the course of such a lengthy narrative, must be immense; but Williams' technique never shows. There are no unlikely coincidences, implausible reversals, awkward juxtapositions, or obvious plot devices. There is only the story -- smooth, organic, and completely enthralling.

The success of a work hinges on its conclusion; it remains to be seen whether the coming volumes of Otherland will match the promise of the first two. I suspect they will. I also suspect that in Otherland we're witnessing the birth of a classic, one of the "must reads" of future generations of SF/fantasy fans.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Arm of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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