The OF Blog: Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge

Before I begin the review proper of Shadowbridge, the opening half to a duology that shall conclude this summer with the publication of Lord Tophet, I must apologize for those readers who find certain "academic" terms and their discussion to be tedious and prosaic. But to understand more fully the reaction that I had to reading this excellent one, I feel compelled to take note of something that I believe makes the entire construction and execution of this story to be so marvelous.

Underlying every permutation of a story, especially stories that are expressed via oral and/or visual representation, is a performance. By "performance," I mean that complex set of paralanguage communication tools, from a grunt to a pause to a waver in the voice or a slight shake of the head to the tapping of an impatient foot to all the other myriad ways that we communicate our wants, desires, needs, fears, and hates to each other. But "performance" also can be artifice, the replacing of the "real" with the ersatz, with the created, with the "performed." In Gregory Frost's excellent novel, Shadowbridge, I saw not just a well-told story, but also a performance.

The story is set in a sort of a metaverse, where all people live along a massive, worlds-spanning bridge, with an abyss-like sea below it. Most people, just like the vast majority of people before the Industrial Revolution, rarely travelled more than a span or so of that massive bridge. But there were some who did traverse the spans, and many of those people were storytellers and shadow puppeteers. Leodora, or perhaps her stage name of Jax would do for some, is one such traveller, part of a troupe that travels among the spans spinning magical tales of hope, despair, and of love lost or gained (in other words, tales of ourselves) for others to take in. She is accompanied by a lush named Soter, who once accompanied Leodora's father, the legendary puppeteer Bardsham, and by Diverus, whose musical accompaniments are rivaled only by his mysterious past. It is their stories, when juxtaposed by the tales told within by this trio, that makes Shadowbridge feel like such a multi-layered performance.

For countless centuries, humans have told tales for a variety of reasons, including catharsis. As the book progresses and we begin to see the actors behind the various story performances shown in the book, we can start to see hints and traces of a much larger story that lies behind the tales. While some who have read stories-within-story books such as The Arabian Nights or Catherynne M. Valente's recent two-volume The Orphan's Tale might view Shadowbridge as being more of the same, I would argue that taking such a position might be counterproductive for approaching the tale from the vantage point that Frost might have conceived it. It seems to me from reading the passages in which Leodora's past is revealed that Frost is more concerned with the notion of Story as Performance, or with the idea that the act of transmitting ideas in a story for whatever reason is much more important and interesting than the stories themselves. This is not to say that the stories that Leodora tells/performs in this book are dull or shallow; they are far from that. Rather, the stories serve as a backdrop for an exploration as to why telling stories (or reading fiction, for that matter) has such importance to us today. In this slender 255 page novel, Frost goes a long way towards establishing what I suspect will be one of the more moving and masterfully performed stories of 2008. I cannot wait until I can get a review copy of Lord Tophet.

Publication Date: January 15, 2008 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Del Rey


Anonymous said...

Interesting, only wish it was january the 15th already.

Although I have admit I am a little disappointed that you didn't use citations to illustrate some general statements on the book, it would have been great if you'd explored the themes a bit deeper. In this case you seem to be more concerned with providing a detailed synopsis and exploring the narrative (what position (not) to take), instead of really praising -since you liked it- the strenghts of the novel.

Larry Nolen said...

This was one of those rare few novels where the effect is a culminative one and there just weren't any short passages that I could cite, as what I saw as the novel's greatest strength, its tying together of Story and the Peformance of a story, did not lend itself to a readily-citable mode of expression. While I could always have explored the themes even further, the problem would have been that I would touched upon so many topics in passing that I would have shaped the reader expectations of the novel too much - I would have "spoiled" it far more than a simple plot twist spoiler of "Frodo Lives!" would have done. It was a hard decision to make.

The next review is much easier for citation purposes, thankfully.

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