Otherland – City of Golden Shadows

Good things need their time. This is true even for a good book. To really get the book and its story you should take enough time. It doesn’t matter, if it take three months to read that book.

Additional reading English books doesn’t work as fluently as books in my native language. But this doesn’t matter. It makes the reading experience more intense. Maybe this is just an illusion but I have the strong feeling, that I read English texts more attentivly and more consciously than the German translations. It had been that way with “The Mists of Avalon”, “The Song of Ice and Fire”, with Tolkiens works… And now with “Otherland” or at least the tetralogy’s first part “City of Golden Shadows”.

What is it about?

In a not too distant future, somewhen in 21st century, the net is what TV is nowadays: the omnipresent source of entertainment and information. One doesn’t simply use the net anymore, one goes straight into it. Virtual reality is no more fiction but the usual way to access the online world.

After visiting some dubious virtual club a youth falls into coma with no explainable reason. At the same time the most successful player of some online fantasy game dies his virtual death after being distracted by some golden city. A young soldier tries to escape the dread of World War I just to find himself without any memory of himself or his past in some surreal worlds. A little girls against her parent’s will helps an old man to escape some militrary base. And while all this some secret organization plans… Well the true goal is not revealed. Something must be left for the other books. But measured on their actions it must be something really big (yes, I could ask the internet, but why spoil the fun of reading the story?). There are hints, there is the talk of some Grail Project. I could speculate that it is about something like immortality. Why else should the project be named after the goblet that held the blood of Jesus and is said to give eternal live to the one who drinks of it?

It is speculation. Likely, yes. Logical even. Provable? Not yet. It could even be the simple attempt to claim world domination (even though those people effectivly already DO rule the world). The appearance of the evil syndicate’s member as ancient Egypt gods reveals some greed for power and some superelevated look at themselves.


Something is special at this story

Who dares to step into Otherland be warned: It is easy to get lost.

I’m serious. Mr. Williams followes more than one narrative at the same time. Ad hoc I count six different storylines but I might oversee something. It is not always clear, which storylines run parallel or at different times. Only somethimes there is some hint, that the chapter before is just now.

But though the whole story runs along the time of weeks or even months the uncertainty of time is not really a problem. None of the events is based on some other narrative and finally all storylines are brought together when the heroes meet in one (virtual) council and the villains have their first strike entering the final phase of their project.

It’s due to the story’s structure that I was not always able to put the things into some specific time but also saw no need to do it. Mr. Williams dedicates each chapter to one person or group, similar to the point-of-view-characters of George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice anf Fire” and still different. The view onto the characters in “Otherland” has a bit more distance and still more personal. As much as I love Mr. Martin’s big work (and hope that “Winds of Winter” will be in the stores soon), I have never felt so close to any person in his books as I did while reading “Otherland”. This is as well for the heroes, who still don’t know that they are heroes, as for the villains. While Mr. Martin brings close to the capter’s POV character, Mr. Williams holds me at a distance, lets me see a bit more of the great whole and makes me exactly that way feel closer to the persons. Even to the Brotherhood’s violent assassin. I don’t like him. Still I thought the same things he did, made the same decissions.

Of course all this is very subjective.

In contrast to George Martin, Tad Willams sometimes breaks the concept of the chapters focussed on one person or group and joines some strings of the story at a specific moment. At those moments he does basically two things: He raises the speed of the storytelling a bit for a moment and developes some highlight, that raises the tension of the story and draws me as the reades on in the story. These are the moments where different plots cumulate and give some status quo of the story.

With “Otherland”, too, Tad Williams shows up as a strategic master. Though a bit more seems to happen along the story of “City of Golden Shadows” than for instance in “The Witchwood Crown” all the events still serve the purpose only to place the figures where they belong to continue the story, to summon the heroes at the end, to eliminate some persons, to let the antanogists strike. And even that first strike of the Grail Brotherhood is not simply the first big move but the cause to send the “Fellowship of the Ring” (to use a picture put out by a character of the story comparing the meeting of the heroes with the Council of Elrond from “The Lord of the Rings”) on its way.

Actually, the comparison with Tolkien’s works isn’t that wrong. As in “The Lord of the Rings” nine fellows set out in “Otherland”, if I didn’t count wrong. Even this fellowship has a traitor. But it’s kept open, who the traitor is.

But that similarity to Tolkien is not the only reference to pop culture.  Tad Williams doesn’t even try to hide these references. And why should he? Be it scenes on Mars reminding to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter”, be it the “Middle Country” online game that shows the swords and the sorcery given by Robert E. Howard (Conan, the Barbarian; Kull, the Conquerer) or Karl Edward Wagner (Kane) – all this happens in the virtual world. There is no reason to conceal those references, though such virtual worlds will pick up things we already know. Games such as “World of Warcraft”, “Age of Conan”, “Lord of the Rings online” or even “Star Wars – The old Republic” already proove this. In this Tad Williams showed up as a prophet. The difference between the world of “Otherland” an our reality is just the immersion. We have just VR goggles (at best). In the book there are finer possibilities to access VR, gear with tactile feedback, sarcophaguslike VR tanks filled with some gel whose characteristics can be altered at will, even direct neuronal connections. But 21st century has just begun. A lot can happen in the future until the time of “Otherland”.

But the world of entertainment is not the only thing in which Mr. Williams had been prophetic. Right at the first chapters shudders ran down my spine.

Te first shudder came not from any kind of premonition. It was a picture from the past, the picture ofthea young soldier Paul Jonas in the trenches of World War I. Tad Williams described in a most vivid way the dread of the 1918 Spring Offensive. A moment long I thought more of some War story than of a SciFi tale.

The second shudder came with first portrayal of the net. “City of Golden Shadows” had been published in 1996. The internet, as we know it, was in its beginnings and just starting to step into the household. Nobody thought of things like Facebook, even though looking back the developement of social networks had been a logical step.

My biggest critics at social networks is always the way of their use, the room they claim in our lives. We’re living in a world of Youtube stars (of whom I never know, who the hell they are) and Instagram influencers. Facebook defines us. “But everyone is at Facebook!” – how often did I hear something such? Sometimes I had the feeling, one would not exist, if one was not at Facebook. And how do people become stars, who just put a picture of their lunch at Instagram?

In “Otherland” the net is a symbol of status. Everybody can have some basic functionality. But some areas can be accessed only by those who can afford it. To run some just quite successful online business one has to be present in the “Inner District”. And some of those business are there just on the brink of their very existence, barely able to afford their place in the “Inner District” but not able to exist at all without it. The rich show up in the virtual world in the fanciest disguises just to show, they are special. The not so rich can only afford some basic avatar. While in the past people presented their status in society by expansive clothes, cars and houses the personal status in “Otherland” is shown via the virtual world. Just as we seam to know from Facebook et al.


All in all

It is no secret at all, that Tad Williams is one of the most outstanding authors of our time. I even dare say, he is the best writer we have. His picturesque world are leaving even Tolkiens works behind.

Who loves Science Fiction should read “Otherland”. And who already did so, should read it again. Our times are different then the time when the book hab been released and “City of Golden Shadows” might leave some different impression than back in 1996.

Who love Fantasy should consider to read “Otherland”. The virtual worlds let blur the borders between SciFi and Fantasy in a magnificent way.

If you don’t like Fantasy and SciFi is too abstruse in your eyes, there’s still a thrilling story left for you, a story set in the fucture but in still in a realistic world.

In other words: There is no excuse not to read “Otherland”. Everybody gets served. SciFi, Fantasy, conspirational thriller – it’s all in the story.

Tad Williams is juggling with the genres in a most execptional way, letting borders blur, sometimes vanish, prooving my opinion, that categorizing stories often is impossible. Is it Science Fiction or is the SciFi just the gown, the thriller is wearing? Or is even that thriller part only the disguise of some classic fantasy quest?

Try to answer those questions! You will see what I mean. There isn’t the one right answer. But before trying to find your answer, read the book!

Story:5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Style:5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Fun:5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Average:5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

There’s no other judgement to me.

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