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Richard Adams' epic fantasy Shardik (1974) differs from his first novel, the wonderful rabbit epic Watership Down (1972), and from his third, the devastating satire The Plague Dogs (1977). First, the point of view characters of Shardik are human beings instead of animals. Second, it takes place in a pre-medieval fantasy world, not our contemporary real world. Third, it is bleaker, with less easily appealing characters. Fourth, rather than depicting a (rabbit or dog) quest to find a home, the later novel, as Adams says in the 2014 Introduction to the audiobook, is about "power, politics, corruption, and the nature of religious truth."
Shardik begins with an apocalyptic fire burning a giant bear into the backwater province of Ortelga. There the loner hunter Kelderek stumbles upon the bear and believes it is the divine Lord Shardik returned as prophesied in ursine form. When Kelderek tells his news to the powers that be, he sparks a debate: should the Ortelgans follow the Tuginda (high priestess), who says to watch and sing to Shardik to find out what he wants them to do, or should they follow the ambitious Baron Ta-Kominion, who wants to use Shardik to inspire the army into taking back the long-lost Ortelgan empire? The Tuginda believes that to manipulate (especially with drugs and cages) the bear-god for human desire is blasphemy doomed to failure. Kelderek sides with the man of action, opening the door to a world of pain and suffering for the people of the empire, the bear, and himself.
Although Kelderek is the agent of much harm, he is deeply affecting because of his capacity for faith, error, regret, and love. Adams puts his characters through the psychological and physical wringer. As the Tuginda says to Kelderek, he and she are vessels of god to be broken and remade. For true believers like Kelderek, Shardik is a God ever about to reveal a deep truth, but to people from different cultures he is a bear worshiped by fanatical barbarians. Adams writes no unambiguously supernatural events or artifacts or characters. The epigraph to the novel is a quotation by Jung: "Superstition and accident manifest the will of God." And yet. At key times and places Shardik does seemingly nudge people in certain directions. And the passages where Kelderek believes that he is accessing the divine via Shardik are sublime: "Once more he felt the old elation and terror, a giddy transport, as of one balanced above a huge drop on a mountain summit." Adams makes us wonder about chance, fate, faith, and the ineffable.
Adams does a fine job of world creation, beginning with impoverished and forgotten Ortelga and then expanding out into surrounding provinces. He does a bit of Tolkien-esque inventing of legends and songs, but this is a different kind of epic fantasy from Lord of the Rings, for there are no evil empire, dark lord, or elf, dwarf, hobbit, and goblin equivalents, but just flawed human beings. When the protagonist and his culture restart a child slave trade to fund their armies to hold onto their newly acquired empire in the name of their god while their civilized antagonists are fueled by antipathy to slavery, the morally skewed world feels like our own, in which all sides of any conflict think they are right, and in which outsiders find it hard to decide which side to root for. The book lacks typical epic fantasy "heroic" action. Although there is some brutal person-to-person violence, Kelderek is no warrior, and most of the war that follows the advent of Shardik occurs offstage via reports, and the one battle shown real time is terrifying.
A great source of pleasure and power in Adams' novel are his wonderful similes. Often they are short and sweet, like this one: Melathys "woke as silently and swiftly as the moon emerges from behind clouds." But often they grow in enriching and apt ways, similes with multiple vehicles to describe their tenors, similes within similes, epic similes with elaborating vehicles, like what must be the longest, a devastating one describing Shardik:
"After war has swept its way across some farm or estate and gone its way, the time comes when villagers or neighbors, their fears aroused by having seen nothing of the occupants, set out for the place. They make their way across the blackened fields or up the lane, looking about them in the unnatural quiet. Soon, seeing no smoke and receiving no reply to their calls, they begin to fear the worst, pointing in silence as they come to the barns with their exposed and thatchless rafters. They begin to search, and, at a sudden cry from one of their number, come running together before an open, creaking door, where a woman's body lies sprawling face down across the threshold. There is a quick scurry of rats and a youth turns quickly aside, white and sick. Some of the men, setting their teeth, go inside and return, carrying the dead bodies of two children and leading a third child who stares about him, crazed beyond weeping. As that farm then appears to those men, who knew it in its former days, so Shardik appeared now to Kelderek: and as they look upon the ruin and misery about them, so Kelderek looked at Shardik drinking from a pool."
Adams, who says in the Introduction that part of the inspiration for Shardik came when his family took in a 13-year-old ward of the court, wants his reader to understand the terrible toll poverty, neglect, and war have on children: "There are as many kinds of cheering as of children's weeping." Kelderek's nickname,"Play-with-the-Children," the different forms of child slavery, and the long eucatastrophic conclusion of the novel all express Adams' message that "children are the flames of God."
Adams has a grim view of human nature: "Cruelty and evil; they're not very far down in anyone. It's only a matter of digging them up." But he also has an eye and for beauty: "The water was so smooth, that when two ducks flew across a white cloud, wheeled in the sky and disappeared up stream, their reflections were plain as themselves."
John Lee gives his usual professional reading of the audiobook, but his distinctive manner and rhythm tend to transform the different styles of different books into John Lee Voice, and I wish that Ralph Cosham, who splendidly read Watership Down and Plague Dogs, had been alive to read Shardik.
If you liked Watership Down, you must try Shardik, but be ready for a more brutal, beautiful, powerful, and ambiguous book. It is an ambitious epic fantasy not quite like anything else.