Southmarch is a small northern kingdom on the edge of the Shadowline, a mystical border separating human lands from those of the Qar, dark, mysterious elf-like creatures banished centuries ago. The Eddon family has ruled Southmarch for generations, but King Olin has been captured and it falls to his young heirs to guide their land in a time of growing danger.

The royal family must face their human enemies, supposed friends and the family curse. Twins Barrick and Briony shoulder impossible burdens as their father is imprisoned and their brother murdered. Briony flees toward her father and the slave armies of the Autarch, while her brother crosses the Shadowline gripped by madness.

Williams is definitely one of the top genre writers of his generation, and this is as well done as his previous epics. But Williams' effective plotting and characterization is undermined by his reliance on stereotypes. The Funderling folk are reminiscent of hobbits to mind, while the Qar riders strongly resemble Tolkien's Dark Riders. Additionally, the medieval setting lends itself to a patronizing portrayal of women, and there are vaguely racist overtones in the depiction of various human and demihuman ethnicities.

These tropes are so common in fantasy fiction as to be unremarkable, and if one reads for pure enjoyment without analyzing the text, this is a very entertaining, effectively plotted setup for an epic series. It's disappointing, however, from an author clearly capable of more. (Nov., 800 pp., $25.95)
Reviewed by: 
Jen Talley Exum