Like Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet is but one half to a whole – in other words, read Shadowbridge first. Events pick up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of Shadowbridge and the various mysteries introduced in Shadowbridge are explained – Leodora’s dealings with the gods, Soder’s past and what he is hiding about her parents, the coral man, and others. In fact, by the end of the novel everything is wrapped up rather neatly with a pleasing ending for a book about stories.
The stories within stories structure beautifully blends with the overall narrative and becomes less about the tales told by Leodora and more about stories of Leodora – her family, her past, her journey, and the mysteries that follow her. The moralistic lessons of her fables both mirror and anticipate those of Leodora’s own life as she grows into herself, learning her own heart and desires while realizing her role in the coming conflict with Lord Tophet. These economic, poetic and ultimately pleasant stories make Lord Tophet a joy to read.
The characterization suffers a bit in comparison to the stories, but in a way that fits. The characters seem like caricatures at times, characters in a play (or a story) and not real people. This feels intentional to me and it fits so well with the stories within stories structure and overall sense that these characters are all shadow puppets in Frost’s capable hands.
Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet evoke conflicting reactions in within me. Surficially, I love to see fantasy novels that don’t function well as doorstops – Shadowbridge weighs in at a mere 272 pages and Lord Tophet even shorter at 222. Another part of me then wonders why they couldn’t be published as a single volume – is this just a grab for more money? This is particularly grating with the cliffhanger ending of Shadowbridge.
However, Frost contends that these two novels were conceived as separate works, and after reading Lord Tophet this becomes clear. The thematic heart of these two novels is strikingly different – Shadowbridge is the beginning, the journey, a bridge at so many levels. Lord Tophet concludes – a tale of consequences, love and betrayal with all dancing to the predestined strings of a shadow puppeteer.
In my review of Shadowbridge, I said that its ultimate success would depend on the conclusion in Lord Tophet. The conclusion offered leaves me drifting somewhat aimlessly, making this pair of reviews some of the most difficult reviews I’ve written. The conclusion works – it even works well, but does it live up to its potential? The potential of the Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet duology was huge, and these could have been memorable, timeless works – the stuff classics are made of. Simply said, this potential is unrealized – these books are great and should be talked about, but the climatic moments lacked that extra punch needed to attain true greatness. The conclusion was ultimately expected, and while it was heartfelt – it needed to be heart-wrenching. This is disappointing since unrealized potential often tastes bitter even when compared to lesser works lacking potential. However, the Epilogue is the sweet refrain for the bitter climax and ends the book with a fitting upswing.
The Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet duology is a beautiful read and stylistic wonder with the weaving of stories within stories and the resulting thematic tapestry – the work of a true craftsman. Even with unrealized potential, these books stand apart and above much of the ‘standard’ fantasy offered and easily earn a label of literary fantasy. The world of Shadowbridge is rich with stories waiting to be told and I look forward to Frost answering that call. 7.5-8/10