Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

Review of City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

Yet another book that I’ve had in my possession for a few years, City of Golden Shadow is the first in the four-volume series, Otherland. The story is science fiction, although it has strong fantasy overtones. It’s set at some point in the future, mid to late 21st century, maybe in a similar world to William Gibson’s classic and seminal Neuromancer. Like Gibson’s works it concerns innovations in the cyber world and the interaction between that and the real world.

The main characters are: Renie Sulaweyo, a South African woman whose brother is trapped in a coma-like state after having visited a dodgy on-line club, and who embarks on a dangerous quest to find out what happened to him; Orlando, an American teenage boy suffering a debilitating illness who plays an immensely successly on-line character in a World of Warcraft-like game – a character that suffers an unfair fate; and Paul Jonas, a Briton who is trapped in a constantly changing fantasy world with no idea of where he is or even who he is.

They are all caught up in a global plot by a cabal of super-wealthy megalomaniacs – a plot which has something to do with virtual reality and children.

It’s good stuff. The writing is pretty solid – occasionally a little weak and never really reaching to spectacular literary heights, but perfectly readable. The main characters – and the minor ones – are all well drawn and engaging. The exception to this, in some ways, is !Xabbu, a Bushman whose culture is dying and is a student of Renie’s (she teaches VR at Durban Polytechnic). He is always calm, efficient and sensible – he oozes understated nobility. I find this kind of characterisation rather patronising; nevertheless, I still like !Xabbu – politics aside, he’s a good character (not a viewpoint one, by the way).

There are lots of admirable things about this book: the fact that the heroine is a black South African (and who comes from a troubled home – her mother is dead, her father is a drunkard and her young brother spends too much time exploring the nether reaches of cyberspace); while the bulk of the other characters are American, there are also a couple of Brits, a Frenchwoman and an Australian – a nicely global spread (Tad Williams used to live in England, so his British characters are that much more believable); the book is also a rather clever pastiche of a number speculative fiction-related sub-genres: there are sections set in the Orlando’s game world; other parts call to mind Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories set on Mars.

In the debit column, aside from the aforementioned prosaic prose, the whole VR thing is a) very 90s and b) not quite believable. Using handsets to alter cyber-reality, Lawnmower Man-like VR suits, the descriptions of avatars, the strictly ordered diversity of the on-line world and its exclusively visual nature – ten or fifteen years after this series was written, these aspects don’t ring true. However, it’s no deal-breaker – as always, there’s an element of suspending disbelief – and this is nowhere more true than in old science fiction.

I enjoyed City of Golden Shadow a lot, more and more the more I read it, in fact. Today I bought volumes two (River of Blue Fire) and three (Mountain of Black Glass) of Otherland from What the Book? Looking forward to reading them.

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