The vision of a bridge probably invokes the feeling of simplicity, a means to go from A to B or vice versa, at time ornate, but more likely, sensible, serviceable, and functional, but bridges in fiction have led us to many memorable moments. Whether the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Goats Gruff, Jon Orr, or perhaps most memorable to me, a standoff between brothers, Benedict and Brand, fans of speculative fiction have tread many bridges and with Shadow Bridge, Gregory Frost brings to us a world made of bridges, bringing a literal walkways to the figurative that exists all around us.
Our travels take us to different spans, an apt description considering our protagonist‘s ‘magic’ is in her hands — a master shadow puppeteer — as she looks back on her travels, collecting and sharing stories, and performing in a manner that had not been witnessed since a generation before. Leodora, whose stage name, Jax, relays not only the stories of the myth, but draws audiences from members of the pantheon who inhabit such stories. Relegated to a caste that views a potential marriage to the dimwit son of a lackluster family in the hinterlands as an optimal destiny, Leodora, the local pariah, who knows very little but lies and gossip regarding her eclectic parentage runs off to pursue her father’s trade. Bardsham the last master shadow puppeteer — and the greatest.
The town drunkard was the first to bring Leodora to Tenikemac as a baby and he would accompany her as she fled. Soter, the man who preserved the legacy of Bardsham, the puppets of the former master of shadow play, and passed them to his heir. Soter is the bridge to the past, prone to converse with the dead, and while his intent seems true, you get the distinct impressions he does his best to lay low, perpetually on the run but nor trying to look like it and his new, or perhaps life-long charge has raised the stakes. Is his habit due to reflecting on past digressions or the future he was waiting for? Or perhaps — he just enjoys his drink. There is guilt, there is pride, and a sense of duty.
In between the travels, two deviations highlight the novel. One to tell the story of the company’s third member picked up along the way . It’s a the story of a boy left abandoned with an abandoned home who is used as bait for a divine lottery and then sold to service to a Harem with a twist -drinks and spirits included. A musical savant/avatar, you lose yourself in his song, as although brief telling you get completely immersed and you don’t realize you left one story for another — it was always about Diverus wasn’t it? — until a member of the audience reveals a familiar face. We also get a recurring story, of creation and death, a tale of a fisherman — the original dreamer — and his wife, that adds to the immediacy of the story as they recount the mythology and origin of Shadow Bridge itself.
There is a fourth member, the secret companion, an enigma that will remain as such…
“There is much to life that seems random, events for which no obvious purpose is apparent even though they may compound. In the aftermath only can a pattern be discerned — missteps lead to an inevitable conclusions, an inescapable fate, sometimes doom and sometimes triumph. We curse the one and pretend to be responsible for the other, while neither fortune is true”
The most amazing aspect of the novel may be its constraint. There is a real story. Frost can go anywhere, along the bridges of a multiverse, and he seemingly does, but it all spirals back, every step is relevant, even if we don’t know it as a fact when we whimsically take it, at once Florentine and Shinto. But it never just dissolves into a fever dream — the characters and their problems are substantial, if it is an experiment, they are the control. What made something like Amber such a terrific read was that you while one can clearly witness the endless possibilities of walking through Shadow, Zelazny never forgot his story; and while Frost’s weave and use of point-of-view is a bit more ambitious, you only ever lose the story long enough for it to find you around the next corner. The segues from one environment to another, from one span to another is smooth. It doesn’t come off as abrupt absurdism, it’s not a book that demands constant leaps of faith even when we find ourselves in mid-jump, and it is able to maintain an authentic feeling of travelers on the road. For this reason, Frost’s makes us feel we are not seeing his finished products being deconstructed recorded on paper, we feel like we are there as he constructs it. The telling is as refined as the product thus far.
Often times when following a troupe’s travels in our reading, the journey feels as if it’s what occurs between the author’s real passion or the exact opposite, destinations are end point, rest areas in between the actions create bonds between characters in the process of running away from troubles or chasing after themselves — and in the aptly titled Shadow Bridge we have both. Nothing feels like an extension of the other, everything is unique, everything is fantastic, we touch the mythic, we share stories with gods, then we go to find our next job, drink our next beer, catch our next fish, stare at and converse with our monuments, we play board games…with Kitsune.
A planned duology, what we also see is the development of a concept — a universe — for even more stories whether future novels or short fiction to inhabit. From parades to ‘the end’, more stories of the dragon bowl, there is fertile ground for revisiting all manners of stories in a Willinghamish way. There are preexisting cases such as a call back to call back to Frost’s fine collection Attack of the Jazz Giants and other stories, where one story — a Sturgeon finalist — entitled How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost his Toes was referenced, as Leodora viewed her puppets:
“The figure of Meersh stood alone and somehow wretched”
And later, the master story teller tells him — the Trickster — to go back to his own story.
It’s a beautiful story but not in the same vein I have described in more recent reviews, it’s not Valente who both whispers and screams at us with the voice that makes us anticipate each equally; Frost charms us in manner like Paul Park did last year, and there is a feint lyric in the background, a harpist in the wind, that is beautiful but has a grace that goes beyond skin deep that brings to mind the strengths of several of my most beloved reads, but only in flashes, before forming its own vision. When confronted with just having the first book in a story, upon reaching its conclusion there are many possible reactions. Disappointment, anticipation, satisfaction, disconcertion and Frost leaves us looking back believing the phrase, “we build too many walls and not enough bridges”. As we look forward, the idea that we may be a part of something special is more than a mere passing thought. We aren’t just looking forward to a worthwhile journey, we just stepped out of one., and yet we feel like we are continually chasing it and are never left feeling lethargic as at the same time we sense it stalking us. The novel physically weighs in at well below 300 pages, but you come out of it with more in the experience than you do multiple installment tomes promising swords and truths, blood and stone — you can trip on its shadow.
I’m hooked, the serenity of a fisherman’s dreams and the chaos of the beings who inhabit it offers a middle ground we can all find our place in, in this case one of the best reads of the year and this is just the beginning. I’m a traveling man this year this year; the best books of this year I encountered when walking the road and crossing a bridge.