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Otherland, Vol. 3
Mountain of Black Glass

Tad Williams
DAW Books, 689 pages

Mountain of Black Glass
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.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 2: River of Blue Fire
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

Mountain of Black Glass is the third installment in Tad Williams' complicated and lengthy Otherland saga, begun in City of Golden Shadow and continued in River of Blue Fire.

In Volumes 1 and 2, a group of adventurers -- net instructor Renie Sulaweyo, her friend and student !Xabbu, and Orlando Gardiner, a dying teenager -- set out to find answers to a mysterious coma plague that's striking children all across the world. Their search leads them to a top-secret virtual environment known as Otherland. Otherland is made up of a series of simulated worlds, each one completely different, all linked together by a virtual river. Otherland's programming is so incredibly advanced that experiences inside the network are indistinguishable from reality.

Otherland is owned and operated by the Grail Brotherhood, a group of fabulously wealthy men and women led by the ancient and secretive Felix Jongleur. The Brotherhood is opposed by an equally cryptic group called the Circle, and also by a crippled man known only as Mister Sellars, who isn't connected to any of the players, yet nevertheless seems to know exactly what's going on.

Inexplicably trapped within the Otherland system, Renie and her companions stumble from world to world, seeking answers and uncovering clues. Early on, they're separated; the different groups pursue different adventures, but it becomes clear to all of them that Otherland is a great deal stranger than they ever imagined, and also that there's a direct relationship between it and the plague that's decimating children in the outside world. Though they don't know it, they're being stalked from outside the system by Felix Jongleur's psychotic enforcer Dread, who has discovered their intrusion and wants to know what they're up to. Meanwhile, a man called Paul Jonas, also lost in the system but unable to remember how he got there, tries to figure out why he is having visions of a mysterious winged woman -- and, just as puzzling, encountering virtual versions of her in each world he passes through.

When Volume 3 opens, Paul has arrived in a world based on The Odyssey. In role-playing game fashion, he's no longer himself, but has been cast as Odysseus. He finds himself repeating Odysseus' voyage in reverse, on a path that will ultimately lead him to Troy. Orlando, who by now is very ill, and his friend Fredericks are still trapped in the Egyptian world of Volume 2. They've been told (by yet another version of Paul's winged woman) that they must also make their way to Troy; eventually they link up with members of the Circle, who promise to help them get there. Renie, !Xabbu and their companions find themselves in a vast House that seems to fill the whole of the virtual world it occupies. Dread, still stalking them, manages to capture Martine, and they set out on a desperate quest to save her. In the process, they discover that they, too, must find their way to Troy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Grail Brotherhood prepares for the Ceremony that will transfer their intelligences to the Otherland system, and render them immortal. Mister Sellars continues to follow the actions of everyone involved, and to track the Otherland system itself -- with which, it now appears, something may be going terribly wrong. And Dread, who has discovered and deduced a lot more about Otherland than he was ever meant to, prepares a plan: to seize all the worlds of Otherland for himself.

Mountain of Black Glass is a penultimate volume, and so the story is far from resolved by book's end. Still, as in Volume 2, themes and issues continue to come clear. The identity of the winged woman and her connection to Paul Jonas, the purpose of the Otherland system and its relationship to the coma plague, the nature of Otherland's bizarre operating system, Dread's strange and murderous past -- these and other elements are, if not fully explained, at least further explicated. It's a thin line to walk, plot- and structure-wise: Williams must reveal enough to keep his story from grinding to a halt, yet hold back enough to ensure a full roster of surprises for Volume 4. He manages this adroitly, providing revelations in carefully-measured doses over the course of his characters' adventures, finishing with a twist that throws the story into an entirely unexpected path.

Once again, Williams' inventiveness is on dazzling display. There are fewer worlds in Mountain of Black Glass than in River of Blue Fire (in which the characters travelled through 11 different simulations), but they're explored in more depth, from the House -- a truly fascinating place, in which a whole series of novels could be set -- to the strange and savage world of The Odyssey. Classics buffs will find a lot to enjoy here. The Trojan section is particularly well-done, with a series of riveting battle scenes, clever dialogue that echoes the cadences of Homer, and a nicely-judged sense of the irony of a virtual environment that operates along many of the predictable principles of a role-playing game, yet is immersively real -- real enough to kill.

Is Mountain of Black Glass as superlative as River of Blue Fire, which absolutely bowled me over when I read it last year? Not quite. The opening sections are a bit slow, and there isn't as much of the wonderful character development that illuminated River of Blue Fire. Also, the novelty of the characters' passage from world to world has begun to wear off just a bit. But these are minor quibbles. This is a finely-written, absorbing book, a worthy addition to what is, so far, one of the best series I've ever read. Volume 4, Sea of Silver Light, is one of the books I'll be most looking forward to in the year 2000.

Copyright © 1999 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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