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Otherland, Vol. 4
Sea of Silver Light

Tad Williams
DAW Books, 689 pages

Sea of Silver Light
Tad Williams
Tad Williams is the bestselling author of Tailchaser's Song and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. He is co-founder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.

Tad Williams Website
Tad Williams Other Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Tad Williams
SF Site Review: Otherland, Vol. 3: Mountain of Black Glass
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 2: River of Blue Fire
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 1: City of Golden Shadow
Tad Williams' Shadowmarch
Tad Williams Fan Page
Interview with Tad Williams

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In reading a multi-volume series that's still in the process of creation, not all the suspense lies in the plotline. This is especially true when the quality of the early installments is high: one can't help wondering whether the author will be able to deliver a finish strong enough to satisfy the expectations raised (of course, sometimes one can't help wondering whether the author will ever deliver a finish at all, but that's another story). In Sea of Silver Light, Tad Williams accomplishes this and more, drawing his massive Otherland saga to a triumphant conclusion.

Over the course of the previous volumes, a group of adventurers, drawn by their search for the cause of the inexplicable coma illness that has claimed children all over the world, has become trapped within the Otherland system, a secret and incredibly advanced virtual reality environment. Otherland consists of dozens of different worlds, fashioned to the whim of the members of the Grail Brotherhood, the shadowy organization that owns the system. The Brotherhood's intent is immortality: they plan to transfer virtual constructs of their personalities into Otherland, leaving their real bodies, and the real world, behind. Over time, the system has grown unstable (its mysterious sentient operating system, the Other, is behaving in ways its masters don't understand), but the Brotherhood decides to proceed even so. Unbeknownst to them, however, Dread -- the psychotic-but-brilliant minion of the Brotherhood's leader, ruthless billionaire Felix Jongleur -- has gained access to the system. At the climactic moment of transfer, Dread seizes control of the Other. Most of the Grail Brotherhood are killed or injured. Only Jongleur survives intact.

The adventurers, who've spent much of the story struggling separately through a series of strange virtual worlds, find themselves separated yet again in the aftermath of Dread's attack. One group -- including Paul Jonas, who has been trapped in the system from the beginning, and Martin Desroubins, a blind net expert who senses the Otherland system in ways the others can't -- are caught once more among the worlds of Otherland, many of which have been horribly damaged and perverted by Dread's psychotic plundering. The other group -- including Renie Sulaweyo, a university instructor whose brother has been claimed by the coma illness, !Xabbu, a displaced Bushman who is also her student, and Felix Jongleur himself -- wind up in a much stranger place, a series of bizarrely distorted fairy tale worlds. These, it turns out, aren't part of the Otherland system at all, but an independent creation of the Other.

Meanwhile, in the non-virtual world, a determined police detective continues her real-life pursuit of Dread, and yet another group works to unravel the mysteries of Otherland, and to free those trapped inside it. It's a race against time, for the Other has been damaged by Dread's attempts to subdue it and may be dying, threatening the demise of the entire system. To save Otherland and its hostages, the searchers must discover what, and where, the Other is. In the astonishing secret at the heart of Otherland lies the real truth of its makers' evil.

Otherland is a tremendously complex work, a function not simply of its great length, but of Williams' inventiveness, which over the course of the narrative has generated an enormous number of mysteries, themes, characters, and plotlines. The challenge of resolving all these, as well as delivering the sweeping climax the huge tale demands, is truly formidable. Williams proves equal to it. The lead up to the solution of the final mystery is a long one, but the payoff is more than big enough and strange enough to justify it -- with some completely unexpected twists saved up for last, and an intriguing speculation as to exactly what kind of reality a virtual reality might become, if it were allowed to evolve. Story and character threads are tied up with impressive thoroughness; I don't think there's a single thread left dangling. Especially good are the last few chapters, in which the aftermath of adventure is addressed (an area most fantasists prefer to avoid), with the characters uneasily adjusting to non-virtual reality, and coping with the not-always-happy consequences of their experiences. Best of all, Williams is able to make this final installment as entertaining and emotionally involving as any of the previous ones -- no mean feat, given everything else he must accomplish.

Throughout the series, Williams has thoughtfully examined the importance of storytelling as a tool by which human beings shape their perceptions of self, world, and the relationships between them. All the invented worlds of Otherland are stories (sometimes literally, for a number of them are novels brought to life), through which the members of the Grail Brotherhood have given shape to their dreams of immortality; and along Paul's and Renie's and the others' difficult journeys, storytelling has helped them retain their connection to the real world and gain perspective on the struggles they undergo. In Sea of Silver Light, this theme comes to the forefront, particularly in the portrayal of the Other. Crippled, tormented, and profoundly lonely, the Other has quite literally shaped world and self from story, and it's in that story, far more than in the technological mystery of its being, that the key to understanding it lies. The Other imposes story also on Renie and her companions, who over the course of the narrative have gradually taken on archetypal qualities -- the warrior, the wise woman, the clever trickster -- and who are, in turn, cast by the Other in archetypal quest roles. It's an interesting interplay between the idea of quest and the quest-structure of the series as a whole.

When such an enormous saga is so thoroughly summed up, there's always the danger that redundancies will become apparent: themes and characters that could have been stripped from the narrative, to yield a leaner work. But if one occasionally has that suspicion as Otherland draws to a close, it doesn't diminish the enjoyment of the whole. Strongly written, finely characterized, masterfully plotted, and above all consistently intelligent in its examination of self and story, real and virtual, and the blurred boundaries in between, this series stands as a major achievement, and should cement Williams' reputation as one of the most accomplished authors now working in the field.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

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

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